The Worldfolio sits down with Garth Roberts, founder and CEO of Meguro Tavern Co., Ltd. and the Ikari Brewery to discuss Japan’s great touristic boom and the investment opportunities it has created for entrepreneurs.
You became a Japanese resident more than 30 years ago and have witnessed first-hand the evolution of Japan in terms of a tourist destination. Despite this increased touristic exposure, misperceptions still exist about the country particularly due to vast differences in culture and a prevalent language barrier. As someone that has lived in Japan for several decades, could you tell us about this evolution?
Japan is a country that has preserved its unique culture over hundreds of years and is recognized as one of the most traditional civilizations in the world. With increasing globalization, Japan has experienced a great influx of tourists over the past few decades and the numbers are still rising. Whether it be delicious food, stunning natural sceneries, quirky neighbourhoods, Japan offers a truly unique experience to any foreigners that come to visit.
The major cities of Japan such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are quite international today. I can even get around by just speaking English most of the time here in Tokyo. If I have a problem, I can of course switch to Japanese but the majority of the time I try to get by in English to also encourage Japanese people to listen and practice their English as well. Tourism has led to an increased exposure to foreign languages, and you’ll see that more and more Japanese people can understand and communicate with foreigners in English. In more remote areas away from the big cities, people are still much more traditional and can only speak Japanese, which can be difficult for tourists if they are visiting these regions. However, Japanese are generally helpful and compassionate people so they will try to help you anyway!
As someone who knows Japan quite well now, particularly Tokyo, what would you recommend to our international audience to see in Japan?
The ‘golden route’, Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto, is extremely popular amongst tourists who come to Japan. In fact, around 70% of tourists are said to take this route and they are right to do so! If you really want to experience the famous Japanese ‘big city life’ then you have to visit Tokyo and Osaka. If your time is limited in Japan, I believe seeing the ancient capital is a must as well. Other than that, it really depends on what you are interested in. I have lived in Tokyo for a long time now and know it like the back of my hand so I am better off giving suggestions about what to do in Tokyo. Like any big city, Tokyo offers a multitude of activities to do and places to see. If you’re interested in fashion then Harajuku and Shibuya are the areas for you. If it’s manga and anime that you like then Akihabara must be a destination during your time here. I also highly recommend Tsukiji, the renowned fish market. I personally am very intrigued by Kapabashi, which is a two kilometre route devoted to everything that is bars, restaurants and hotels. If you are in the food business, for example if you are a chef or you’re just a common foodie, then that is where you would want to go. But make sure to leave time to stop by the Meguro Tavern for a cheeky pint.
You founded the Meguro Tavern in 1998, which was followed by the establishment of your Ikari brewery in 2013. Can you tell us a bit more about your history and the evolution of your business?
One of the reasons I decided to establish the brewery was simply because the sales tax was being introduced and I realized that it would be impossible to sustain my business if I only sold commercial beers. Another reason is because I am very picky about the beers I like to drink and serve to my customers. I want to offer them what I believe are good English ales and I really enjoy brewing my own beers and hearing what they have to say about them! In terms of our business philosophy, we are a ‘margin’ business. We have carefully established secure margins so that no matter what people drink we can still gain a profit from it.
What is it to step into the Meguro Tavern? What atmosphere are you trying to create?
I want to give my clients the sensation that they’re in London once they step through our doors. For my fellow Englishmen and women, I want them to feel as though this place represents a piece of home at the heart of Tokyo. For everyone else, I want to give them a true experience of what a classic English pub is like. No need to spend money on air travel, spend hours at the airport and eat terrible airline food – just walk into the Meguro Tavern and enjoy a pint (or two). We also serve typical English food, the best in Tokyo actually, so that people can get a real taste of England while they’re here. I believe we’ve been able to create a very friendly and ‘homey’ atmosphere that makes people want to come back and that’s exactly the feeling I want to instil in my customers. I actually have two blokes that love this place so much they are in here almost every day!
I understand that aside from running your bar and brewery you also offer other activities for customers to participate in. Could you explain to our audience what these activities are?
Some people are very interested in brewing beer but must have a certified license in order to do it professionally, and in order to apply for these licenses they must first prove that they have appropriate experience in the field. That is where I come in. I have established a 3-4 day brewing program that allows people to get the minimum required experience in order to apply for these licenses. In reality, brewing beer is not a very difficult practice – you just need the right training, equipment and ingredients. During this program, I teach people the fundamentals of brewing by offering hands-on experiences in working the equipment, as well as more theoretical lessons where I teach them about the different alcohols that exist and the various ways in which they can be used and combined. In addition to the brewing program, I also have a cooking program where I teach people how to make the best traditional English food – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, roasts, you name it.
Craft beers in Japan represent around 1% of total consumption. However, it is growing and it is the only type of alcohol consumption that is growing in japan. What do you make of this trend and do you have any plans of commercializing any of your beers?
I personally am only interested in making beer that I like and that my customers can enjoy. I try not to worry myself with the cost of ingredients or equipment, as long as I can make nice beer. The problem with commercializing products is that you have to then start considering the costs and profitability of your beers all the time, especially if you have investment partners who want to see their returns maximized and you can never just enjoy them in their simplicity. It ends up killing the nature of what craft beer is meant to be.
Ideally, you would want to be able to make profit off your beers but not at the risk of compromising certain ingredients and consequently the quality of the beer. It is important to maintain a nice equilibrium and I think that Yona Yona are doing a great job at this.
If we were to come back in 10 years and conduct another interview with you, what would you want to be able to say you have achieved?
I think it is important that people set themselves short-medium term goals; I personally am someone who likes to give myself ‘five-year plans’. My goal for the future is to expand my business by making my brewery 15 times bigger than it is today and to be able to service 10-15 small pubs throughout the Tokyo area. To accommodate this expansion, I would obviously have to relocate the brewery to regions just outside of Tokyo, and I would also establish a central kitchen within the same vicinity. I would then relocate all my senior staff to the central kitchen and use the Meguro Tavern as the primary training ground for future staff.
I am actively seeking a business/working partner capable of not only investing 200 million yen in this project, but to also be willing to work alongside me and cover various aspects of the operations of the business.