His history of success had already started when he struggled to manage shops.
Your restaurant earned Michelin stars for the first time as a yakitori shop. There are many readers who are interested in your experiences. Firstly, I would like to ask you about when you opened your restaurant. Now your restaurant Birdland serves course menus (from 6,000 yen). Did you start out thinking of making the restaurant a high-class yakitori shop?
Mr. Wada :
I originally started a restaurant after I worked at a motsu (offal) grill restaurant so I didn’t really think about making it a high-class restaurant.
When I was working at the motsu restaurant, the average customer spend was about 700 yen. Yakitori was 60 yen per skewer. Motsu was also 60 yen per skewer. Shochu and sake were both 130 yen per cup. Motsu stew was 130 yen. Very cheap, right?!
Therefore, I was originally thinking about opening a SPF pork motsu restaurant. However, the arrival of ingredients was not very dependable. Therefore, I decided to open a yakitori restaurant and used chicken meat marked “jidori” (free range) in the chicken meat wholesale shop near my place. I found out later that there were some that were not actually jidori meat… Then, I prepared a large daily dish, Heartland beer, jizake (local sake) and even bourbon. There were some restaurants at that time which had six year-old bourbon but I always kept eight year-old bourbon with good quality, at the very least. I bought parallel imports and served them at a low price.
I started using hard liquors and wines because it was not common and Mr. Kenichi Hashimoto of Ryozanpaku (*1) told me to use good alcohol from the start because the taste of the alcohol wouldn’t change for a while. It made me think I would need to cook quality food that matches those good liquors.
A majestic Japanese restaurant off of Hyakumanben Street in Kyoto. The restaurant owner, Kenichi Hashimoto, has written many books, including Hocho Ippon Ganbattannen!
It is surprising that you started the yakitori restaurant because the arrival of SPF pork motsu was bad at that time, and there happene to be a chicken meat shop near you.
Mr. Wada :
Yes, that’s why I didn’t think about what segment of customers we would aim to attract.
When I calculated it, the average customer spend was about 2,500 yen, which is probably quite a good price if they are supposed to only eat light. When I talked about average customer spend, I always used chilled tomatoes as an example. It was about 250 yen to 300 yen. If you serve them at three times the wholesale cost, it should be an affordable price. So, we purchase them at 100 yen and sell them for 300 yen. At that time, there was a very expensive tomato becoming very popular. One tomato was 300 yen. I wanted to try it so I bought some. It would be 900 yen if I tripled the cost. It would be too expensive right? So I decided to sell it at 500 yen to gain 200 yen profit. The sales-cost ratio would be low but the profit is still the same. 500 yen is still expensive but the taste should be very good. The secret of selling them is not to say that it is definitely delicious, but it “should” be delicious. It became popular after some people tried it. They said that if you say “It should be delicious,” it actually became more delicious. Yakitori is the same. I purchased high quality ingredients. The cost was high but I managed to gain the same profit with expensive, high quality chicken meat as with cheap chicken meat. In this way, I hoped that customers would think they are inexpensive, considering the quality of meat.
So you created a restaurant which serves high-quality dishes at a low price and gradually developed the restaurant to become worth it in terms of the average sale per customer.
Mr. Wada :
For example, our liver pâté was featured in a magazine. Therefore, we added a liver pâté to our regular menu so the average customer spend increased gradually. Then, our oyako-don (a bowl of rice topped with chicken and eggs) was featured in another magazine so we added it to our regular menu. In that way, the average sale per customers gradually increased. In 1995, when I moved to a place with about 70 square meters, it had already increased to 5,000 yen.
Birdland grew up because of the help of those around me and rich creativity
Did you have a specific idea in mind for your restaurant’s interior and exterior?
Mr. Wada :
When I opened the first restaurant, I borrowed my father’s retirement bonus of ten million yen. I leased a property about 23 square meters, but the deposit was eight million yen! I couldn’t hire a carpenter so I had no choice but to do everything by myself.
When I was working on the exterior, a salesperson from the liquor shop came and said I would need to decide the restaurant name soon, or they wouldn’t be able to arrange a fridge from the beer company. I named it Birdland tentatively as it was a yakitori restaurant where jazz music was played. However, when I was about to open the restaurant, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to change the name! Therefore, it became my restaurant’s name officially.
The restaurant where I used to work was the type of a restaurant which sold on a large scale with low profits. So when we opened the shutters, we started the business right away. I thought it would be better to make it a glass-walled restaurant so that people could see inside. Birdland (*2) is the name of a Jazz club that used to be in Manhattan. In 1949, it opened on 52nd Street in Broadway, which used to be a mecca of jazz music. It became the one to lead the jazz music’s golden age.
In Asagaya, I heard that restaurants which couldn’t be seen from the outside were common. There must be some customers who hesitated to come in because it was glass-walled?
Mr. Wada :
It seems people who passed by the restaurant used to say, “It’s such an uncomfortable restaurant!” The outside is dark so even if there are people looking in the window, the customers won’t realize it. It has an effect of a one-way mirror. It stands out in the dark street so people tend to notice it. Actually, it is a good thing for a restaurant that people think they want to go inside, but also hesitate to do so. People used to say that creating a comfortable atmosphere for customers, not making them hesitate to come into the restaurant, was the most important thing. However, I thought we would attract some customers who wouldn’t be “good” customers. With this tactic, if people hesitate but still come into the restaurant, they are already good customers for us. They didn’t come in to make fun of us or anything. Those people have a strong will and know they will be ok with spending money to eat at our restaurant.
People started talking about my restaurant, saying it has good and unique drinks and foods, and gradually the restaurant became popular and full of customers.
You expanded the restaurant three-fold in 1995 after managing the first restaurant for eight years. What was your original business plan when you opened the restaurant?
Mr. Wada :
A person at Shinkin Bank asked me, “How much is the turnover rate a day?” so I told them “In only one turn over, I am confident that I would reach the break-even point.” At that time, it was normal that the average customer spend was 2,000 yen and the turnover rate was about 3 to 5. My small restaurant was able to make about 100,000 yen a day and the average customer spend was 5,000 yen. When I explained to them, “The bigger store with more space would fit 32 more seats so it would never be in the red if the turnover rate was at least one,” they allowed me the full amount of the loan. At that time, salarymen’s days off were becoming two days a week. People who were working at general companies and used to come to my restaurant to drink with 1,000 yen in their hands became too busy. But on the other hand, it meant that they would come once a week and spend at least 5,000 yen. Even after the bubble economy burst, those who knew good quality food would want to go to a high-quality restaurant.
Your restaurant was rapidly expanded with the help of people around you and by predicting the changes of social situations in a positive way.