Tokyo’s oldest hamburger restaurant is set to capitalize on the gourmet hamburger trend.
By Joseph Greenberg
Fresh lobe foie gras, Brie de Meaux, sourdough bread, lashings of black truffle and a thick slab of wagyu (Japanese beef from Kobe) steak: the key components of the world’s most expensive sandwich retailing from Selfridges of London for a mere GBP85 (US$175). Wagyu is also the critical ingredient of the world’s most expensive hamburger, New York’s DB Burger Royale. In the multi-million dollar luxury burger market, consumers in Europe and the US are looking to Japan to add a touch of class to their junk food tastes. Last year, the Japanese government, aware of the global trend for Kobe beef, looked into ways of linking usage of the Kobe beef brand to the DNA of those spoilt and decadent Kansai cattle whose rumps are so valuable. But like with the progression of a number of US mega-brands, from McDonald’s to Disney, the current trend for good quality burgers has come full circle drifting across the US, through Europe, and now arriving in Japan itself.
In reality however, crazy-priced extravagances are unlikely to generate as much profit as a one-dollar cheeseburger, but the market for burgers a cut above those flipped out by the big chains is looking to be a highly lucrative area. Like New York and London, Tokyo is peppered with a number of smaller chains and franchises that offer diners a healthier, tastier version of the hamburger that became ubiquitous not long after Den Fujita brought the yellow arches to Japan in 1971. In such a context the return of Burger King to Japan this summer has been interesting. While clearly revealing that the fast-food market is far from being in the kind of decline that antiglobalization activists and health campaigners often tell us that it is and should be, it is yet to be seen if they can really pull it off this time. Attitudes have changed and there is indeed a greater concern in Japan about obesity and Japanese consumers are still very wary of where the meat they eat is coming from.
That’s why any of the successful highend or gourmet hamburger restaurants all use Japanese beef or good quality produce from Australia and New Zealand. Offering burgers in a price range from JPY1,000 to JPY2,000, gourmet burger restaurants are becoming the choice of a wide range of diners, often those who have graduated from fast-food joints but still wish to experience the foreign heartiness of a burger.
One of Tokyo’s new chains, Homework’s (started in 1985), claims to be Japan’s ‘first’ gourmet hamburger and sandwich restaurant. However, J@pan Inc can exclusively reveal that it is by no means the oldest (or for that matter, the best) burger restaurant in town. The error is perhaps one of translation in that ‘first’ in Japanese can also be translated as leading—but first (saishou) is the one that Homework’s go with on their website. Given that their website also spells their name as ‘Homewroks’ and has a translation of the word that may not be readily recognizable to native English speakers, it is probably best to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Japan’s first hamburger
The real story of Japan’s first hamburger restaurant is in many ways the story of postwar Japan. It was set up by an American named Johnny Wetzstein in 1950 and throughout the ’50s it was frequented primarily by US soldiers and diplomats who went there to puff on Lucky Strikes and listen to rock‘n’roll. The old menu, under the title ‘No.1 Tokyo Hamburger’ offered a taste of home for the almost 100% foreign crowd, although without access to buns, the meat was cut square so as to fit the sliced bread.
Through the 1960s more soldiers arrived in Asia as a result of the Vietnam War and many of those were based in, or at some stage passed through, Tokyo—and The Hamburger Inn, which moved to Roppongi in 1964 became a hub for the troops as well as resident foreigners. Tokyo Tower was erected down the road and the building of the Hibiya subway line connected Roppongi with the rest of the city.
In 1972, a Japanese citizen, Mr Amazaki bought the place and took over as CEO and by then a very cool crowd of both native and foreign customers, many of them personal friends of Mr Amazaki himself, were starting to hang out there and take advantage of the advertised closing time: “never.” The soundtrack of Elvis and Buddy Holly morphed into Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton, while the teddy boys and soldiers were replaced with long haired hippies and Harley Davidson fanatics—the full range of Tokyo’s hippest early adopters were turning out to eat hamburgers, drink, smoke and party. It was one of these trendsetters who eventually ended up buying the place.
Teruhisa Oikawa spent the late 1960s in the United States, mixing with the Haight-Ashbury set in San Francisco (think Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin) growing his hair, learning English and experiencing Western life to the max. But he didn’t just fritter away the time. Too poor to afford a ticket to Woodstock, he set his mind to thinking about how to return to Japan and make enough money to buy himself a Harley and live the rock‘n’roll lifestyle he was after.
The trend visionary
By the time he got back to Japan in 1971, Oikawa hit on the idea that would make him famous, beyond the crowd at The Hamburger Inn who whispered in jealous tones about his Harley FX. Oikawa became the first man to import denim to Japan as a fashion item and he started off selling jeans on the market by Asakusa station before opening a store selling died denim jeans (stone-washed, tie-die and so on) in the then quiet district of Harajuku—by no coincidence today’s shopping Mecca for Tokyo’s fashion worshipping consumers. The Oikawa Pants Store blossomed into a highly profitable enterprise benefiting from, if not being a catalyzing factor of, the big jeans boom of the time, making them as commonplace as burgers.
Oikawa says that because in the 1970s there was much less information about what people were actually wearing in America or Europe, but a fast growing amount of consumer curiosity, him and his rare store became acknowledged by the media as expert purveyors not just of jeans, but of a lifestyle and aesthetic choice that was taking the country by storm. He also sold a lot of army surplus clothes such as the US military jackets with the orange lining that retailed in the mid-1970s for JPY15,000 (around US$500 now) that he managed to purchase at very low prices in Korea. The demand for the clothes justified the price and allowed him to diversify and try out other brands.
In 2000 Oikawa set up another fashion company called Shuip. As well as selling trendy men’s and women’s clothes, Oikawa owns the distribution rights for the Surplus Company clothing brand and runs a profitable sideline in selling sale licenses in Japan. Surplus has positioned itself as the brand that supplies Outburn (a wholesaler who in turn supply Right On) a major online and high street fashion retailer. Outburn supply Right On with over US$125 million dollars worth of merchandise per year and from that license only, Oikawa receives a cool US$1.25 million, if you round it down.
Shuip has stores in the Tokyo fashion districts of Daikanyama and Harajuku and has product lines going by the brand names, Shuip, Shuip Sympathy and Shuip Kaou. He also sells his products through the Shuip website and has garnered media attention through putting on exhibitions as well as his formidable personal network of musicians, designers and celebrities.
Having traded in his Harley (that he gave to his friend, a member of the popular Japanese group The Cools), Oikawa now drives a BMW and has an aura of mature confidence in his latest entrepreneurial project. He sees his 60 years of age as comparatively young by today’s standards and, in part, his new business plan is inspired by the Japanese demographic that makes Oikawa’s contemporaries a consumer group with very high spending power.
Burger boom: it’s patty time
Given his eye for trends and knowledge of how to monetize his insights, it is no whim that has led Oikawa to takeover The Hamburger Inn. However, he does have a nostalgic connection to the place that has long been a favourite hangout of his. Thus, when Mr Amazaki put up a sign in 2005 announcing its imminent closure, Oikawa and his peers were anxious not to lose such a seminal institution. Oikawa had contemplated the burger business back in the early 1970s and had always had it at the back of his mind that he would like to set up a chain. It was therefore only a matter of weeks before he teamed up with his friend Mr Ito who owns Tokyo’s 70 Barbizon buildings (another success story in itself), to buy the restaurant from his friend and owner.
Oikawa explains that the arrival of competitors to the high-end burger scene in Tokyo has signaled the start of a ‘burger boom.’ Continuous international interaction of Japanese and foreign cultures has created a social trend away from the traditional ramen (noodle soup) shop when it comes to affordable filling meals. In this new burger wave The Hamburger Inn is placed in pole position for four very good reasons:
1. The Brand Heritage
Well known and well liked among a large group of influential people on the Tokyo scene, The Hamburger Inn attracts nostalgic rockers who now account for a large and growing percentage of the country’s population. More than that however, the 57-year-old brand name has an appeal for the younger crowd who search for justification and precedent in their current tastes for Western food and fashion. With his fashion experience and awareness of brand power, Oikawa has been quick to introduce an already popular range of Hamburger Inn merchandise including a wide selection of T-shirts, baseballs hats, mugs and badges.
2. The Taste
The Hamburger Inn burger is unique and superior from bun to patty. The buns, baked at a specialist bread shop, are made with yeast used in the brewing of sake (kouji) that gives them a distinct doughy flavor, and a height and fluffiness that makes them tower over the offerings by stores such as R-Burger or Freshness Burger. The beef in the standard burger is from New Zealand and has a tenderness and taste that put the burger firmly in the gourmet category. In the luxury version, for another JPY1,000, the meat is premium Japanese beef originating from the same butcher that supplies Robert De Niro’s Tokyo gastro-dome Nobu. The author can testify that biting into a Hamburger Inn burger satisfies on all the necessary levels: taste, juiciness and texture.
3. The Price
Whilst most gourmet hamburger places start their prices from around JPY1,000, The Hamburger Inn offers a burger for JPY800; versions with cheese, bacon, chili or avocado are available for JPY900. Critically, The Hamburger Inn offers the high-end burger at middle-end prices, something Mr Oikawa sees as key to growing the franchise. The JPY800 not only undercuts other chains but also renders the place highly competitive for the lunchtime market.
4. The Atmosphere
Unlike the fake antiquity of Freshness Burger or Homework’s, Hamburger Inn has a sleek modern finish whilst retaining the essence of its 1950s roots. Red seats and retro decoration are juxtaposed with contemporary wood and stainless steel furnishings. Well selected tunes and a staff from around the world make for a markedly ‘foreign’ postmodern atmosphere that encourages patrons to while away the hours and take advantage of the fully licensed bar.
Hamburger Inn has a sleek modern finish whilst retaining the essence of its 1950s roots.
These are the key ingredients that will make the place a hit with the consumer, but what about the business plan? Can The Hamburger Inn turn a profit? Despite his sentimental attachment to the place, it is unlikely that someone like Mr Oikawa would be involved if there wasn’t a very solid business plan in place.
At the moment, there are four Tokyo restaurants. One is located in the Barbizon 27 Building in Nishi Azabu; another is on the first floor of the Mentels Hotel a bit further up Roppongi Dori; early August saw one open in Jingumae, 3-chome and this month the T/K Hamburger Inn opened in Cat Street, Harajuku. The latter, a small shop measuring 8 tsubos, (26.4 square meters) at the moment has a super-size monthly turnover of JPY5,500,000 a month. In the year ahead Oikawa hopes to open between 6 to 10 more stores with a target of 300 franchised stores in three years.
Oikawa is also something of a PR genius. When asked about Japanese media attention he beamed and said, “it just keeps coming. I’ve been interviewed by TBS, Fuji TV and many of the local newspapers.” With his connections to famous bands such as The Cools, as well as his own colorful background, Oikawa’s latest venture is proving such a talking point that they were number two on Yahoo!’s “Topics” list in Japan and a quick internet search for “Hamburger Inn” reveals their popularity among bloggers and e-media on key sites such as those operated by Yahoo! Japan, Rakuten and Livedoor. On the side he has set up a hot dog shop too, ‘House of Sausages’ and Oikawa plans to hold eatathons there, as well as introducing a separate line of merchandise.
However, in order to achieve the rapid growth Oikawa has in mind, he is frank about the need for investment. He knows the business is out there but he needs the investment to finance more restaurant locations, develop the merchandising side of the business and get the staff he needs to run and manage the chain. With his experience and previous successes, he knows the branding and the marketing will be a breeze. Furthermore, he believes the strength of the market and permanency of the trend give the speculator something more than Tokyo’s most delicious hamburger over which to lick their lips.
The Hamburger Inn
CEO: Teruhisa Oikawa
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-001