FUKUOKA – I was about to go to my first-ever French language-exchange gathering in Fukuoka. I had invited along my friend Max, intent on keeping our French fort et bien vivant — alive and kicking.
We got off the elevator on the third floor of a building in Chuo Ward and approached Sam’s Bar TalkEigo, the location of the event. Suddenly, it dawned on us that we were possibly heading into an all-native-level mish-mash of French conversations. All the same, we crossed our fingers, opened the door and stepped into the simple, pleasant space.
As Max and I walked alongside the bar counter, the Francophile group came into view on our left — a bunch of them. I admit, we hesitated. However, that hesitation was long enough to meet a man, who introduced himself as “Sam” — the owner of the bar. With just the right combination of small talk and chai tea, Sam managed to get Max and I relaxed enough to join the French challenge and, c’était un grand succès (it was a success).
I later found out that Sam, whose real name is Sultan Vidhani, was born and raised in Chicago and had lived in Tokyo for 10 years before relocating to Fukuoka six years ago. Explaining how he came about owning a bar, the 52-year-old takes the story back to when he was in the capital.
“I was teaching English in Tokyo, usually at Starbucks, when one of my students had a really bad day at work,” he recalls. When that student suggested going for a drink, Vidhani accepted and it struck him that getting paid to drink beer and teach English may make for a pretty good job. After that lesson, Vidhani proposed the same idea to others.
“I was teaching six, seven, sometimes eight lessons a day at Starbucks,” he says. “A lot of my students loved the idea (of switching to alcoholic drinks), so I started teaching two or three lessons a day at the Hub (a British bar). I actually became a gold member there!”
After relocating to Fukuoka, Vidhani opened a four-seat school and kept a small fridge nearby stocked with beer. “This is actually working,” he recalls thinking, coming to the conclusion that all his Japanese students needed to loosen up in their lessons was a bit of “nominication” — a portmanteau of the Japanese verb “nomu” (to drink, in this case alcohol) and the English “communication.”
Also shortly after arriving in Fukuoka, Vidhani began holding cooking events in his three-bedroom apartment, which saw around 20 — sometimes up to 40 — people taking part. With his home full on a regular basis, he began thinking of how he could bring the school, the drinks and the parties together.
Then, he got lucky. Vidhani spotted a brand new building close to where he lived and went in to check the details.
“On that day it just so happened that they had lowered the rent and it was all completely available,” he says. Vidhani didn’t hesitate for a minute, he packed up the four-seat school and moved to the new location. By August 2017, Sam’s Bar TalkEigo had opened its doors.
Opening the bar was not excessively difficult, but Vidhani still faced challenges along the way.
“The hardest part was getting the landlord to agree to rent to a foreigner and finding local guarantors,” he says. “Most landlords require one, but my landlord requires two guarantors. Once I got over the hurdle of getting my landlord to agree to rent the place to me, and finding two guarantors, it was all downhill from there.”
For the first six months, Vidhani promoted the bar three days a week — on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, when events were organized. On the other four days of the week, he was there teaching English. Soon, word-of-mouth spread and “first-timers came and kept coming back.” Favorable online reviews started to pile up, and a magazine piece even ranked his bar No. 1 in Fukuoka. As a result, Vidhani decided to extend the bar’s opening hours to five days, bringing people in on Thursdays and Sundays, while scaling back on English lessons to twice a week when the bar is closed.
The events began to diversify. There were a variety of language-exchange sessions, game and movie nights, ladies’ nights as well as popular singles’ parties — “There’s no place to walk,” he says. While people from all walks of life are welcome, Vidhani says the “main language at the bar is English.”
“So many people come for that because, in Japan, there’s no opportunity to speak English,” he says.
Vidhani isn’t entirely focused on the “bar” portion of his enterprise at the moment. He’s currently looking for a cafe to move in and take over operations in the space before the bar actually opens. With a well-equipped kitchen, it seems to be just a matter of time before Sam’s Bar TalkEigo brings in a more caffeinated element to the English lessons, which, in a way, would bring Vidhani full circle to his early days teaching at cafes in Tokyo.
Vidhani also hopes to expand his business, too. However, one of his worries with doing so is that the “Sam” in “Sam’s Bar” might be the main draw.
“It’s a good and a bad thing,” he says, adding that customers will sometimes stop by and, if he’s not there, take off again.
For now, that’s a problem for another day. And it’s one that Vidhani is keen to solve. After working as an accountant at Domino’s Pizza and running a business in window blinds back home in the United States, he says he has never felt happier than when he has been managing the bar.
“I’ve learned a lot about people,” he says. “I think it has made me a better person. Everyone has a different perspective on everything. I have learned to listen more and talk less. You make more friends that way.”
Sam’s Bar TalkEigo is located on the third floor of the Kego124 Terrace Building in Chuo Ward, Fukuoka. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/asamsbar.