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Trip to Tokyo? Ex-Goldman trader sells secret dining access
[TOKYO] Are you a business traveller who wants to jump to the front of the waiting list for Tokyo's most exclusive restaurants? Check out this former Goldman Sachs Group Inc trader's new venture.
Takashi Yamada, who worked at the Wall Street firm for 15 years, started a company to help visitors book tables at some of the most sought-after restaurants in Japan. Tableall.com began seating customers last month.
Getting into Japan's top eateries is no easy task, especially for those who don't know the language. Many places are hard to find out about because they rely on word-of-mouth and are tucked away on backstreets. With few tables in small spaces, the most coveted among them fill up fast. Visitors who use hotel concierges to seek a reservation often find out that a place is locked up for months.
Mr Yamada, 38, offers a way around. Tableall secures the reservations by paying the restaurant in advance for a set-menu feast, then charges customers 3,000 yen (S$37) per seat on top of the meal's price. Diners incur charges if they cancel close to the booking date.
"I had no idea how difficult it was for foreigners to book a restaurant in Japan," Mr Yamada said in an interview.
"I want foreigners to enjoy real Japanese culture. I want them to know the real, deep Japan."
Tableall currently offers spots at 11 eateries in Tokyo. They include Kasumicho Suetomi, which has kaiseki course meals from 34,000 yen per person including the booking fee, and the Michelin-starred Tempura Motoyoshi, with offerings starting at 20,000 yen each. Seats are grouped as a package of two, but solo diners and larger groups can make special requests.
The English-language website provides detailed photographs and information on the dishes and tableware they're served on, biographies of the chefs, and precise map locations.
Mr Yamada lives in Singapore, where Tableall is based, and visits Tokyo regularly to catch up with chefs and scout new locations. He's seeking to add 20 more restaurants by the end of next year, including in the historic city of Kyoto, and in Hokkaido, where foreigners flock to ski resorts.
He's not going out of his way to target Michelin-starred eateries, since they're not necessarily the most favoured by Japanese connoisseurs, he said. Long term he'd like to expand in places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Hawaii.
Mr Yamada is keen to persuade Japan's top chefs to share their talents with discerning visitors, even if they don't need the extra business. Those that have turned him down cite long waiting lists for regular customers.
Yasuo Suetomi, the 42-year-old chef at Kasumicho Suetomi, said he appreciates foreign customers because they tend to create a warm atmosphere and sometimes have better manners than locals.
"The key to Tableall's success may depend on the quality of its members," Mr Suetomi said.
"If they get excellent people, more may want to join. That's also good for restaurants." Mr Yamada said about 550 people have registered so far, including company executives, hedge fund managers and bankers.
While the country's tourism boom has visitors from other Asian countries including China surging, even American and Canadian travellers have increased an average of 20 per cent this year. The number of visitors to Japan exceeded 20 million this year for the first time, and the government wants to double that by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Japanese cuisine, known as washoku, was added to Unesco's intangible cultural heritage list in 2013.
At Goldman Sachs, Mr Yamada was a managing director who sold shares to institutional investors, and he sees some parallels with his new venture. While other companies in Japan, such as Pocket Concierge, make online restaurant reservations, Mr Yamada says his is the only one that purchases meals up front.
"I'm taking inventory risk. That's a very broker business model," he said. Along with the booking charge, he can make money from cancellation fees - as long as he resells the seats. Since Mr Yamada has no outside investors, he's put up his own capital saved during his tenure at the investment bank.
"It's much less than people think," Mr Yamada said.
"One thing Goldman taught me was cost management, and I'm very good at it."