Overseas restaurants set up shop in Japan

by Steve Trautlein

Special To The Japan Times

Call it the Pancake Revolution.

During the past five years, Japanese diners have become enamored with inventive takes on classic Western breakfast dishes. Unlike many homegrown culinary trends, though, this movement is being driven by big-name chefs and dining groups arriving from overseas with their sensibilities — and menus — intact. The emergence of these restaurants reflects a new sense of cooperation between foreign brands and domestic operators who, through personalized franchising and licensing deals, are satisfying an appetite for authentic cooking that refuses to be altered to suit local tastes.

Among the luminaries to recently debut in the Tokyo area are Australian breakfast maestro Bill Granger, whose scrambled eggs have been called the best in the world by the Times of London; Eggs ‘n Things of Honolulu, whose whipped-cream-topped pancakes have become a culinary rite of passage for two generations of Japanese tourists; and downtown New York restaurant Bubby’s, a progenitor of the “locavore” movement that made its name by serving grandma’s cooking to Tribeca hipsters. They’ve been joined by venues both upscale (Union Square Cafe) and down-home (Sbarro pizza parlors and Mister Softee ice cream).

To say that the Japanese public has proffered an enthusiastic welcome would be an understatement: bills, Eggs ‘n Things and Bubby’s have all expanded beyond their initial Japan locations, and the queues at most branches stretch around the block.

“One of the criticisms you often hear about foreign brands that come to Japan is that they ruined it by ‘Japanifying’ it,” says Warren Wadud, an American whose company, En Group International, matches overseas restaurants with Japanese partners. “That’s why the most important thing is to find a (local) operator who embraces the brand.”

The story of Bubby’s is emblematic of the franchising wave sweeping Japan. In 2008, Wadud was approached by the hospitality arm of railway giant JR East, which was looking for an iconic American eatery to fill a temporary space in Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama as part of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the opening of the city’s port. He thought that Bubby’s, founded in 1990 and specializing in home-cooked fare “straight out of recipe boxes from all over America,” would be a perfect fit — and local diners agreed. The collaboration proved so successful that the original two-year lease has been extended indefinitely, and the partners have opened a pair of new locations in Tokyo Ark Hills and Tokyo Station, with more on the way.

Such outward success, however, masked a behind-the-scenes struggle to maintain brand identity in an alien environment. “I’m not just a franchisee,” says Bubby’s founder and owner Ron Silver by phone from his Tribeca restaurant. “I’m a chef on a mission to defend the integrity of the American table.” Besides facing import restrictions on key ingredients such as cornmeal and Idaho potatoes, Silver had to contend with the inevitable cultural misunderstandings, among them a lack of initiative by his Japanese staff and the misguided expectations of diners.

Silver persevered by making frequent visits to Yokohama and by encouraging his Japanese staff to train in New York; he now admits that the learning process has been reciprocal. “Japan is foreign to me in the same way America is foreign to them,” he says. “My feeling is, the more communication, the better. They’re making as sincere an effort as they can.”

Other foreign dining brands have found success by taking a more hands-off approach. Union Square Cafe, the much-admired New York restaurant from superstar chef Danny Meyer, was scouted by Japanese hospitality group Wondertable (of Lawry’s the Prime Rib and Barbacoa fame), which was seeking an upscale brand for the debut of the Tokyo Midtown complex in 2007. The ensuing negotiations resulted in a one-off licensing agreement, in which the group got the rights to the Union Square name and elicited direction from the New York headquarters.

“We didn’t set out to make a carbon copy of Union Square Cafe,” says Michael Romano, the director of culinary development for the Union Square Hospitality Group. “We allowed and encouraged a kind of collaboration that grows organically.” Chefs at the Tokyo branch enjoy wide latitude, developing their menus in consultation with Romano, who visits at least twice a year.

What strikes diners who have visited both Union Square venues is the continuity of style between Tokyo and New York. “If a collaboration like this were music, you have to get in the right key,” Romano says, praising the Japan team’s commitment to simplicity and top-shelf ingredients — qualities that earned the New York restaurant the top spot in Zagat’s guide for an unprecedented nine years. “They’re in the right key and having fun with it.”

That’s music to the ears of diners — and to the chefs who are feeding them.

“It’s a blessing to be working with these guys in Japan,” says Silver. “They’ve really embraced what we try and do.”

bills: (046) 739-2224; www.bills-jp.net. Eggs ‘n Things: (03) 5775-5735; www.eggsnthingsjapan.com. Bubby’s: (045) 263-8139; www.bubbys.jp. Union Square Tokyo: (03) 5413-7780; www.unionsquaretokyo.com. Sbarro: (03) 6427-3774; www.sbarro.jp. Mister Softee: (03) 6228-2838; mistersoftee.jp.


The French connection

As living standards rose in the postwar and bubble eras, Japanese people developed a taste for the good life. Helping them learn to appreciate the finer things were — who else? — the French. The most dramatic moment came in 1982, when legendary Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent — celebrating its 400th birthday, no less — opened a branch in Tokyo’s Hotel New Otani; it remains the brand’s sole property outside the City of Light. That debut was followed by a spate of boutiques from notable patisseries and food brands, typically in Ginza’s upscale department stores: Laduree, Dalloyau, Jean-Paul Hevin, Pierre Herme and Fauchon. More recently, star chefs Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagnaire have debuted Tokyo outposts to great acclaim.