I’m very glad my trip to Tokyo is taking place well before Christmas because it’s not a very big deal over there. I, on the other hand, am obsessed with anything to do with it and tend to get the Carols out as soon as Halloween and those wretched fireworks are over. (Lovely if you’re watching them, far from it if you have to spend the evening administering Rescue Remedy to terrified dogs). London’s decorative shop windows are the best ever this year and that lovely Leona Lewis has already been to turn on the lights in Oxford Street.
But when I arrive in Tokyo there is not even a hint of tinsel. After all Christmas Day here is not even a public holiday, just a regular working day and even the children go to school as normal. Artificial trees (there is no market for real ones in Japan) and decorations are fast becoming all the rage though, along with Christmas cake eaten on Christmas Eve. This is a far cry from our brandy laden fruit cake and can only be described as much more of a summery affair. A sponge cake is covered in inches of whipped cream and decorated with as many whole strawberries as will fit on top of it without falling off.
This is produced by the excellent ever-popular bakeries stores which supply the baked goods taken to homes as staple gifts on every visit. Most popularly preceded by roast or fried chicken, KFC, which opened here 30 years ago and has over 1,100 stores across Japan, is known to be packed on Christmas Eve and normally sells out. Theirs is a brand success story. With the Japanese government’s push to encourage foreign firms to set up in Japan, along with the enormous success of companies ranging from Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers in finance to Gucci and Chanel in luxury brands, it’s somewhat unfashionable to talk about their not so successful counterparts.
However, the travails of some of the brightest and the best of the West: Vodafone, Carrefour, E Bay, Boots, Burger King and Pret and many more besides suggest there are some lessons that are not being learnt. I am intrigued to scratch below the surface of the small but visible sandwich world of Tokyo while I’m here to try and find out what makes it tick, who survives and why a brand as successful as Pret failed.
Firstly it’s important to understand how varied, accessible and reasonable lunch options are in Japan. Supermarkets and Convenience Stores areon nearly every street. They say you are never more than five minutes walk from a Convenience Store in Japan and when I see what they sell it offers a new meaning to the word convenience. Along with being a food, hardware and chemist shop, they offer financial services such as insurance and banking, as well as airline tickets and office facilities. Schools and office workers (‘salary men’) order regularly from a large selection of Bento Boxes they supply. These offer combinations of rice and pickles, together with different recipes of chicken and fish dishes. They are generous, filling and very popular and can be eaten cold or microwaved and have an average cost of £2.00.
Rice balls and noodles are also sold here and again offer cheap and substantial meals. There are several other options: the Curry Shops in and around the stations that serve curry and rice with a glass of water for a couple of pounds. There are the Kaiten revolving sushi bars, and the Soba, Udon and Ramen noodle restaurants, all providing lunch for well under £5.00. In addition, there are the 4,000 McDonalds outlets across Japan, making it the highest density of stores outside the U.S.
Convenience stores also sell sandwiches. These are wrapped simply in cellophane triangles with a very similar watchstrap tear strip down the back of the pack, now so evident in our own cardboard skillets, except this version has been around for some considerable time. Crustless, therefore slightly smaller in overall size and only on white bread, the selection of fillings is simple and recognisable: tuna mayo, egg mayo, egg & tomato, ham & cheese and each one with a salad version, but what stands out about them is their unbelievably low cost – on average no more than 40 – 60p.
Huge central kitchens cost-effectively produce for twenty to thirty convenience stores with constant fresh deliveries of products, each one offering full nutritional information together with, very efficiently, the actual precise time of production. Rather dreading my taste panel, I dutifully bought one of each to take apart and de-engineer back in my hotel. (Does everyone undertake as many taste panels as I do in hotel rooms I wonder – I should get out more). Perhaps it’s the sandwich snob in me but I really wasn’t looking forward to trying any of these – can anything this cheap possibly taste OK, let alone be good? Well, I was in for a few surprises and one thing I do know is there isn’t a retailer in the land over here who wouldn’t grab the opportunity to sell this kind of quality. Because there is such a high demand for fresh ingredients with good colour and combinations, this is reflected in the detail.
The cucumbers and tomato slices are perfectly cut. Tomatoes without skins – oh how they make an egg sandwich so much more luxurious. Crispy springy lettuce and beautifully angled cucumber slices looking very much like they have been cut by hand. Tuna with texture, no overmixing here. Delicious chunky egg mayo with the most piquant of mayos.
Despite appalling jetlag I am sure I’m hallucinating. Without a doubt these are exceptional, simple but very well made and a marvellous example to the sandwich world. If this is the bottom end of the Tokyo sandwich market I can’t wait to see what it’s like at the other end. Five years ago Pret opened shops in Tokyo. This was done in conjunction with McDonalds and a wonderful man I’m now off to meet called Yuki Tomonari. The story is well known, Pret didn’t work in Tokyo and closed. Yuki, having spent some seventeen years with McDonalds and a further two with Pret, bought the assets, took over the sites and started a new venture called Natural Beat with some backing from two successful giants; Lotte (Confectionery/Hotels/Real Estate) and Lawsons (Japan’s second biggest Convenience store with 9,000 outlets).
He now has a total of twelve shops: six are bakeries, five are sandwich shops and one is a Gelato. The Japanese love their design and on a Saturday afternoon fervent locals are congregating with their friends in his ice cream parlour in a trendy shopping mall. He is planning a further five bakeries and another two sandwich shops in 2008. He and I meet over an iced coffee (still trying to make inroads with my jetlag, apparently iced coffee is the answer) in his Hibiya City shop, (Pret’s second) and I ask him why he thinks he’s succeeded when Pret failed. Yuki believes more flexibility was vital to satisfy the locals. Warm sandwiches are paramount and he now uses a steam toaster that works a 90 second bit of magic on a cold sandwich resulting in his warm sandwich sales rising from 10 to 20%.
Price is paramount (he offers a set lunch for the equivalent of five pounds for a sandwich, soup and a drink), image is vital. The Japanese are fickle and very fussy and the thread of success hangs on the tireless tailoring to their tastes. This part of the world thrives on exclusivity and brand adoration. The locals think nothing of queuing for two hours at Crispy Crème for a bag of doughnuts. They must have something that is very difficult to get. Interestingly when the same frenzy occurred in Korea Crispy Crème immediately opened a five storey outlet; it’s been pretty empty since day one. The mystique died over night.
Yuki is aware that innovation is vital and constantly refreshes his range of only ten sandwiches. There is competition in waves around him. He makes me try his new Banana Juice which is now legendary (Oh God I can’t stand even the sight of bananas) which turns out to be extraordinary and comforting. He also has a special Honey Latte, but I’m sold on trying his very intriguing sounding top selling Salmon, Egg Mayo, Mashed Potato and Pesto sandwich. He is proud of his Salmon which comes from Hokkaido Island where hatchery programmes have been launched to supplement the wild salmon population and promote sustainable salmon stocks. It’s like a fish pie sandwich, delicious.
He is a realist and knows his market remains within Tokyo city, that good locations are extremely limited, and that sandwiches are still niche. His key to survival in this market is to constantly adapt and modify restaurant level quality to the fast food module and inject fresh ideas. He does have a few good ones under his belt – the single sandwich was his original brainchild though others may try to convince you it was theirs. Later the same night (my jetlag has now merged into oblivion) I meet with the second Ben Warner of Benugo (confusingly there is a Benedict and also a Benjamin). Ben is an architect of great repute in this part of the world and has lived in Tokyo for twenty five years.
He is the custodian of Benugo Japan and has learnt the hard way of how to survive the Japanese sandwich market. Opening in 2001 when Starbucks were just getting big, new businesses and openings in Tokyo were rife. Four months later they had opened three stores leading to a total of eight. But sites that looked excellent on paper often didn’t deliver in reality and a landlord’s position in Japan is very strong. Properties are only available as rentals not leaseholds and a landlord reserves the right to penalise tenants with fines for the slightest change they may make to their business, say if they decide to close early on a Sunday. Ben acknowledges his biggest competition is without doubt the Convenience Stores. Whenever they have opened near him his sales have been affected. He does feel the sandwich market in Japan is limited and success is dependant on the right location.
Of his now five stores two are within Lehman Brothers and two are in-house kiosks catering to many of the ‘foreigners’ rather than the locals. He intends to plan his further expansion with caution. He believes that the sandwich is not perceived by the locals as anything but a westernised snack in Tokyo and with so many hearty options as competition it is easy to understand why. It is simply not the staple lunchtime diet it is in the UK and will always have hard competition from the ever popular cheap and satisfying rice and noodle dishes. But that is not to say local consumer tastes aren’t evolving and changing slowly. This is a very sophisticated place with an international flavour and modernity which at the same time is still steeped in traditions. There is an exquisite way in which even the smallest task is undertaken, everything is precise and pristine. There is no litter, no blobs of chewing gum to line the pavements. Trains arrive constantly and can be timed to the minute; there are no inefficiencies in the day to day.
After living in Tokyo for twenty five years Ben says when he returns from a trip away he still gets goosebumps when he drives home from the airport and even after just a few days I think I know what he means. It is without doubt an unbelievably captivating city and yes, I was a little sad to leave. But I think I will be back one day soon and, who knows, it may be to see more recognisable sandwich brands lining these immaculate streets.