Meeting with Mr. Fujimaki and opening his own restaurant at the age of 25
How did you meet Mr. Fujimaki Kazuomi, who would later become your business partner?
Mr. Taira :
Fujimaki was a very famous callboy. Actually, I met him a couple of times when I was young. He was 7 years older than me and my impression was that he was a scary man (laughs). It was when I was at Acqua Pazza. A staff member rushed to me and said, “The customer who ate your pasta is saying he wants to see you.” I felt like, `Oh my god, seriously?` and looked at the chef, but he acted as if he didn`t know what was happening (laughs). Maybe I had done something wrong. I went into the room and there he was. When I approached him he suddenly stood up, saying “Your pasta was excellent!”
After that we started contacting each other. I told him about my dream to own a restaurant, and he taught me about his ideal restaurant, so we decided to work together. The staff at the restaurant was Fujimaki and I, some sommeliers whom I met in Europe and some part-time workers. Fujimaki was the owner and I was the chef. After that, Fujimaki left the restaurant due to family issues and I became the owner chef.
Did the business going well from the beginning?
Mr. Taira :
Thanks to everybody, it really took off (laughs). I wrote the menu on a blackboard and the bistro-style atmosphere became popular. I started the first restaurant with only my passion for what I wanted to do. At that time, I thought that everything in the restaurant—the flowers, plates, the interior—everything had to be linked. So, I designed tables and did whatever I could do. Actually, I designed the table we are sitting at right now. The first restaurant was about 10 tsubo in area and there were 20 seats including the counters. At lunchtime, we did four turnovers, and 2.5 turnovers at night. Sales per customer were 3,000 yen, making monthly sales about 5 million yen. There was a huge line at the lunchtime, and I was so happy to be well received by our customers. I was 25 and healthy at the time so I worked around the clock. In the second year, we started lunch and dinner catering and monthly sales went up to 7 million yen.
That is amazing. Was there soon talk of opening a second store?
Mr. Taira :
It`s my contention that while the food is important, it`s people that make the restaurant. I think there are definitely times when customers come to the restaurant because of the chefs and staff here. That’s why I thought that it would be ideal for the restaurant to grow in proportion to the staff. I had doubts about quickly opening second and third branches, despite the restaurant`s success. So I took my time in opening the second branch. It took about 7 years after I opened the first restaurant to finally get enough of the right people; at that point I opened the second shop.
Even if it is a chef I have instructed, when you open a second shop, he is no longer directly under my supervision, so regular customers at the first store will not necessarily support the new restaurant. What would I do if they said, “But I came to eat Mr. Taira’s food instead“?
Although there was some difficulty, over seven years, I grew confident that the shops could operate independently if I did my best to supervise. Fujimaki returned for the third store. The service was solid, but we struggled deciding on a chef. When I interviewed Higuchi, I had halfway given up. He came to the interview with some sort of plastic bag and messed up hair; my first impression was “What`s with this guy?” (laughs). But I realized he was interesting upon talking to him. For example, he talked about expressing the delicacy a Motsu dish extravagantly, rather than covering up it`s smell. I could sympathize deeply as a chef for the first time in a long time. He was the one. First-class chefs can produce a dish of such excellence that it touches your heartstrings. That intuition turned out to be correct, and the store which Fujimaki left to Higuchi became so popular that you couldn`t get a reservation for nearly a year. And with the third shop, I was finally released from the spell of feeling like the owner has to do everything. I learned to let go.
Value created by the SALONE Group
The group has developed 6 stores at present. Given your background as a chef, is it difficult to choose chefs?
Mr. Taira :
When I was in Europe, there was a dish specific to each Michelin restaurant called the speciality. It is a great thing that specialities are passed down from generation to generation, but I thought there was a huge gap between the current era and food from the past. I thought that the chef’s sense of taste, the flavor he creates is most important, not necessarily continuity over time. A restaurant should provide customers with the taste created and accepted by chefs of the current generation. It is nonsense to make judgements based on my memories of 20 years ago. With this idea in mind, I left hiring chefs up to Higuchi. If we`re going to start a new store, I will contact 200 or 300 starred-restaurants to find a chef. We spend half a year debating over the concept and menu, receiving videos of applicants cooking. It takes about two or three years in total to hire one chef.
So you take a long time then! One of the characteristics of Gruppo di SALONE is a double-chef system.
Mr. Taira :
Doubling is a strategy to capitalize on my past experiences. Chefs tend to change every three years, right? In the second year, they start making their marks; in the third year, they get their official positions, but many of them tend to quit after that. Therefore, I hire two chefs at different times of the year, so that even if one quits, the timing won`t overlap, and we can maintain the quality of food. As a result, we are able to keep providing food at the same quality. That, in turn, builds trust towards Gruppo di SALONE.