Buffalo Burgers, Anyone?

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2003

Two Hokkaido entrepreneurs bet that the Japanese palate has a place for bison meat.

by David Wolman

WITH BSE THREATENING TO blast beef into burger oblivion, could now be the time for buffalo meat to catch on in Japan?

It may not be the first time buffalo were here. In fact, some researchers believe these huge animals roamed the range in far northern Japan before the last Ice Age. But now the great beasts may be making a comeback -- in restaurants.

Worried about the health effects of beef and frustrated with the environmental consequences of raising cattle, many consumers in the US and Canada are looking to buffalo as an alternative to beef. Lower in fat, cholesterol and calories yet rich in iron and protein, buffalo meat is raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. According to Penn State University researchers, about 15 million pounds of buffalo (aka bison) meat is sold annually. But will Japanese consumers go for it?

The timing of Yamagishi
Bison could be ideal:
The BSE scare is tormenting
the beef industry

"The taste is almost the same as beef, though the flavor is richer," says Motoko Yamagishi, co-founder of Yamagishi Bison. Together with her business partner, Sapporo-based Tom Goetz, Yamagishi's dream is "to pioneer the buffalo industry in Japan."

The genesis for the company was a conversation Goetz and Yamagishi had when they met on a flight from Chicago to Osaka four years ago. Yamagishi, now 29, had been working for McDonald's, managing up to three restaurants in Kobe and Himeji. But after eating McDonald's food five or six times a week -- and putting on some extra weight as a result -- Yamagishi became disheartened with her job.

"It just wasn't healthy. I loved the McDonald's customers, but I couldn't recommend eating that food."

Somewhere over the northern Pacific, Goetz, who now lives in Hokkaido and teaches English, began raving about the buffalo meat he once ate at a ranch in his home state of Wisconsin. Yamagishi was intrigued.

"I had only seen bison in the zoo," she says, laughing. Continuing a correspondence with Goetz over the course of the next year, Yamagishi's vision for a new business began to solidify. The two talked about the prospect of importing buffalo into Japan and perhaps someday having buffalo ranches in Hokkaido with a specialized restaurant, not unlike Ted's Montana Grill in the US, which is owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

"The Japanese know meat," says Goetz. "They know what they want, and they are aware that bison is an alternative to beef. They just need to know how to get it."

Yamagishi decided to take a trip to Wisconsin for a taste test and found buffalo burgers to be as delicious as Tom and others had promised. Meanwhile, McDonald's was just too enormous and imperious when it came to any of Yamagishi's complaints or suggested improvements. She decided to quit and launch a business, though her soft-spoken voice belies her gusto: "I wanted to make my own company in my own way."

Officially incorporated in the US last spring and registered as a business in Japan in December 2002, Yamagishi Bison has just started importing modest shipments of meat from two companies, one in Canada and one in the US. As with any upstart, Yamagishi Bison faces plenty of challenges. When its first shipment of meat was held at the airport and customs officials threatened to incinerate it, things looked particularly dire.

"That was terrible," recalls Yamagishi. "Importing bison meat from America, we figured that because the company also exports to Europe, they would be familiar with trading procedures. But they sent it to us through Hong Kong. Sanitation standards there are much lower, and the Japanese quarantine officials refuse to import many things from Hong Kong, especially food." At the last minute, however, after scrambling to contact the air carrier and convince authorities at Sapporo's Chitose airport that the meat was perfectly safe, Yamagishi and Goetz got their 75 kilograms of buffalo.

With no additional capital aside from the out-of-pocket money both Goetz and Yamagishi have already invested, the operation at this stage is only marketed via word-of-mouth and remains low key. But the feedback has been quite positive.

"Three out of 12 of the places we pitched it to initially have made orders," says Goetz. That's not a bad average even in baseball, let alone when tossing an exotic food to a country with such refined tastes. And the timing of Yamagishi Bison may be better than either of its founders could have imagined: The BSE scare, especially in Hokkaido, is tormenting the beef industry. As recently as this February, McDonald's Holdings Co. (Japan) posted major losses, its first in almost 30 years (see page 8 for the complete story). It appears Yamagishi isn't the only person frustrated by McFood.

Yamagishi is guessing that the leanness of bison meat will attract weight-conscious Japanese customers as well as the elderly and hospital caterers, since many old or ill people should not or cannot eat beef. "Of course, we need more time to introduce bison meat from the very beginning," she says. "But we believe it will help the entire Japanese meat industry in the future."

While she tries to educate Japanese consumers about bison meat, Yamagishi must also dismantle the commonly held notion in Japan that lean meat is necessarily less flavorful. On the contrary, she says, buffalo meat is lean, healthy and very tasty. And after a juicy trial bite, this reporter couldn't agree more: It's delicious. @

David Wolman is a Hokkaido-based freelance writer.

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