In a country that doesn’t make it easy for non-Japanese entrepreneurs, sometimes the options for Japan’s foreign residents can seem limited. Opening your own business is rarely as straightforward as you might hope, and finding a foothold in a notoriously insular marketplace can be almost impossible.
Long-time resident Craig White, owner of White Smoke, has been through every step in that process, pivoting smoothly from restaurateur to running his own meat production company out of Saitama Prefecture. Today, his extensive lineup of traditional Texas-style barbecue — slow-smoked ribs, chicken, bacon and sausage — is served at high-end hotels and restaurants across the country, and sold in stores such as Costco Japan and Dean & DeLuca.
White acknowledges the tremendous luck he’s had in getting to where he is today, but also says “luck is a matter of opportunity meeting preparedness.”
It’s hard to imagine someone more prepared. With undergraduate degrees in engineering and liberal arts from University of Texas at Austin, an MBA and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University, not to mention decades of experience working in companies like General Motors, Samsung and Corning, White has the experience for nearly everything life has thrown at him.
Among those challenges was launching his original Azabu Juban restaurant (also named White Smoke) in April of 2011, mere weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and then having to close it following a fire in August 2013.
Although his restaurant was only open just under two years, White acknowledges that much of his initial success came from that prime location and attracting a loyal customer base that has followed him on every step of his journey. “People who used to come in every week are still emailing to order meat from me today,” he says.
One customer in particular was crucial. “A regular customer of ours asked if we ever thought about selling at Costco,” White says. “I told him I didn’t really know much about it,” adding that his impression was mostly of low prices, and low quality. The customer informed White he was the president of Costco Japan, and that White should probably look into it a bit more. White did his homework and, when the customer came back, he was ready to talk, leading to a trial sale of 100 kilograms each of ribs, sausage and bacon in the spring of 2013 at the Kawasaki Warehouse branch. The meat quickly sold out, marking the beginning of a long-standing partnership.
The timing was fortuitous. When the fire struck in 2013, White took stock and revamped his company on the fly, switching to supplying restaurants rather than reopen his own. By January of 2014, he had signed a lease on a factory, and began production in March of that year, using equipment he designed himself based on his experience as an automotive engineer.
When it comes to offering others advice on starting their own business, White is no-nonsense, though he admits he might have mellowed over the years.
“You can’t fake commitment. You can try, but you’ll be found out,” he says. Time and cost are other factors to consider: “Anything worth doing will take twice as long and cost three times as much as you thought.”
Taking your time to do things right, of course, is a fundamental law of good barbecue. There, too, White has done the work, spending several months staging at two Texas icons: Louie Mueller Barbecue and City Market BBQ. Studying the craft with giants in the field, White learned about the importance of all-wood fires, and the need for the meat and the seasoning to stand on their own. White uses oak wood, a hallmark of Texas barbecue, and eschews sauces. “With a sauce, everything tastes the same, just the flavor of the sauce,” White says.
“When you look at the level of barbecue in Japan, there’s so much room for improvement,” he adds, arguing that, with so little experience of the real deal, many people in Japan can’t really tell the difference between good and bad barbecue. Only half joking, he calls his work “the democratization of quality.”
With over 30 employees, and suppliers who have come to depend on White Smoke’s continued success, White feels a sense of responsibility to keep his company growing. “We’ve been creating jobs, not just in my factory, but with our suppliers, who have grown along with us,” he says.
Fresh off expanding his factory, White admits he’ll need to relocate in a couple of years to keep up with demand, adding that he’s hoping to open a new White Smoke restaurant in the next two years.
“It’ll be different than the first,” he says. “I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.”
Thinking back on the company he has built, and the people he has worked with, White is relentlessly positive.
“The impact of the bad decisions we’ve made doesn’t compare to the impact of the good,” he says. “As long as we can keep the good on top, we’ll be OK.”
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