Capitalizing on a relationship of trust between chefs and the staff
After that the restaurant expanded its business ventures. It went from a private restaurant to a public company. Was that type of growth something that was conceived from the very beginning?
No, we weren’t thinking about that early on. We moved to Hiroo in 1988 and changed the name to “Restaurant Hiramatsu.” This was at the height of the so-called “bubble economy” and French cuisine was really in vogue at the time. Before we moved our location we almost doubled our seats to 40 total. We were just packed with customers every day.
Then a few years after that we opened “La Fête” in Nishi-Azabu. It’s an authentic bistro-style restaurant, which was still very novel in Japan at the time. And we opened “Café des Près” in Hiroo. It recreated that French cafe style with spacious terrace seating. So overall we had 3 locations at his point. Nonetheless, we still had no idea that all of this would grow into a corporation.
It was in 1994 that “Hiramatsu Inc.” was established, right?
Yeah, that’s right. It was after the bubble economy crashed, but even so at this point our staff had grown in age and skill level.
It was actually Hiramatsu who decided that the younger staff members should figure out whether we should expand further or not. He gathered up everyone in charge of the kitchen and dining room, which was about 10 people total, and posed the question to us.
Basically he gave us all a choice to consider. We had 3 locations that could be supported for the time being, but the future didn’t leave much room for us to get promoted or see increases in our salary. So, the first option was for us to go out and start up our own restaurants. The other choice was to work together and expand the business we already had by adding on new locations. But, Hiramatsu made it clear that that option would bring on its fair share of hardships moving forward. He left it up to us to decide on which course to take.
So, the future of the company was left up to younger generation. That really is like a family. Did everyone involved in this decision have a good grasp of restaurant management and stuff like that?
Every day we just focused on our work at the restaurant, so I think the entire staff, myself included, barely knew anything about it. Nonetheless, we all got together and talked it over. We wanted to stick together with everyone that was there and do everything we could to move forward. We told Hiramatsu that the course we decided on was expansion. After that we pressed ahead with adding more restaurants to our lineup.
Hiramatsu went with us completely once the decision was made. He stepped away from his chef duties in the kitchen and focused his energy on business matters for several years.
Image provision：Hiramatsu Corporation
Expanding into new business ventures with an eye on spreading French cooking
The name “Hiramatsu” started to become associated with restaurant weddings.
As far as wedding events go we started out by doing private parties for guests that requested them back at our main location. This was over 25 years ago in 1991, and in those days terms like “bridal coordinator” hadn’t surfaced yet. For us over in the service section we had all of these meetings stacked up with couples to plan their weddings. We would scramble around the day before putting together gifts and we would go out on our own to find a photographer. I remember everything being very makeshift at the time.
Some of the staff would say things like, “Mr. Hiramatsu must be chasing after more money by booking parties and weddings on the weekend.” But in actuality it’s a real feat to do a restaurant wedding and provide an enjoyable French-style meal for a bunch of people across all ages. He saw an opportunity in all of this. It’s exactly what our company is all about, so you can’t look at it as being anything more than just business.
I imagine in those days there were quite a few people at your wedding events who had never had French food before.
Sure, I can definitely see that being the case. Before we officially started to expand our business interests we opened a bistro, cafe, and other places like that. Hiramatsu was passionate about expanding authentic French culinary culture in Japan, which meant more than just high-end restaurants that were exclusively for formal occasions. For him it was crucial to be able to enjoy casual French dining in a familiar setting. And, hosting weddings was an extension of that idea.
From there we opened up a seasonal large-scale establishment in the downtown area to hold weddings, and we also expanded beyond Tokyo into Hakata and other regional cities. These new ventures improved our earnings. Then in 2003 our stock was listed on JASDAQ, and thanks to these accomplishments we were able to list our company on the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange 7 years after that.
In 2001 your company opened a restaurant in Paris, which had quite the buzz around it.
During that period of expansion we put together a lot of different ideas and talked about doing things like hotels and schools. We wanted our stock to perform well on the market once we listed it so that our company’s reputation would grow in stature. Opening up in France was a part of these endeavors.
4 months after we opened in Paris our restaurant received a star from Michelin. This led to us forming stronger ties with Paul Bocuse and other famous chefs outside of Japan, which helped us expand our brand overseas.
At the moment how far have you expanded your business?
At this point we have a wide variety of ventures, including French restaurants, Italian restaurants, cafes, and much more. Here in Japan we have a total of 36 locations across the country, most of which are here in Tokyo. Last year our restaurant group opened its first-ever Japanese-style restaurant in Kyoto. We’ve also been planning to get into the hotel business for quite some time. In 2016 we opened up in Ise-Shima – Kashikojima, Hakone – Sengokuhara, and Atami. In July of this year we also opened up in Ginoza, Okinawa. That’s 4 locations under our umbrella (*As of October 2018).
All of this means that our employees here can build up experience in lots of different places without having to find a new job. This is one of the benefits of the Hiramatsu restaurant group. In addition to that we have been using our location in Paris as a training ground for employees ever since we opened up there. Even now we send all of our kitchen staff over there from Japan. However, the customers are French of course, so it’s essential to speak the language in order to provide service. This is an immense obstacle to overcome no matter how you look at it, but I’d say it’s a good opportunity for someone as dedicated to service as I am.
Taking on management at headquarters and getting to know the value of teamwork
To get back to your career history, when around did you step up into a management role?
When I was working in the service section back at the restaurant I was eventually promoted to an executive officer, but I joined the board of directors in 2013, so I’d say that’s when it happened.
During that time when our main location moved I dedicated myself entirely to service there. I would help out here and there to get new locations up and running, but I stuck around our main location for close to 25 years. I became a manager when I was 26 and I did that until 2012.
Becoming a manager at 26 years old was just as Mr. Hiramatsu predicted when he said you would become top-notch in service.
Well, not exactly. When we opened Café des Près in Hiroo the manager at our main restaurant left to take charge over there. So, it was purely by chance that the position opened up. I just happened to be next in line, and I got asked to do it based on those circumstances.
I turned it down right away and said there was no way I could pull it off (laughs).
But, Hiramatsu said something along the lines of, “It’s the younger members that are working the restaurant, so you know what they can do. If you take some time to struggle you’ll learn what it takes. If you gradually get acquainted with it then that’s just fine.”
Despite all of that it was still pretty tough there for a while. Right when I started working as a manager one of our customers called us a “bunch of amateurs.” That really shook me. I was focused on doing everything I could, but for some reason it wasn’t coming through.
Were you facing problems there at this point?
Looking back on it now I didn’t have anyone close that I could rely on at the time. The entire staff needed to be focused on the same goal and share the same sense of purpose, but we were being a bit short-sighted in terms of service and other things like that.
After worrying about it considerably I figured that we couldn’t deliver consistent service if we didn’t work as a team. I put a lot of thought into my colleagues and subordinates regarding this. From there I took it upon myself to improve communication between us and I paid much more attention to our surroundings. Over time there were more people that I could trust and rely on, and for the first time ever I saw the value in having a team.
What I came to understand was that it’s not just keeping customers happy on your own. You have to support your colleagues where it’s possible and create an environment where they can help customers too. A restaurant manager is like a producer or a conductor. Hiramatsu used to tell me to be like a “stagehand” behind the scenes.