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YOSHIKAWA MASAHIRO has made it his mission to make Japanese food affordable. It's a big jump for someone who didn't start out as an F&B guy. Or started out as a Japanese in the first place. Born in Taiwan, his family moved to Japan when he was 11, taking up citizenship as well as a Japanese name. In university, he studied civil engineering and worked as an engineer in construction for 13 years. One of his more memorable projects, he recalls, was working on the pillars holding up the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link in Tuas.
While doing logistics for a company in Tokyo, he was approached by a number of Japanese F&B companies for help to expand overseas. While he didn't know anything about F&B, he had overseas experience and he could speak English. Five years later, he decided to strike out in his own. When a space within Food Republic in Shaw Centre became available, he launched Japan Foods Garden - a food alley comprising five stalls offering sushi, teppanyaki and omurice at near food court prices.
"In Singapore, everyone wants to eat Japanese food but it's expensive," says the ethnically Chinese Mr Masahiro. "I feel the same way. I want to eat it every day, but it's too expensive. So I thought okay I'll come up with affordable Japanese food, at nett prices."
What are your thoughts on Singaporeans' obsession with Japanese food?
Singaporeans love Japanese food, but they also love good value. So if you charge S$10 for a small portion of food, it won't sell. But if you charge S$10 and match it with a good-sized portion, then there's value. Japanese food plating is very refined. But people don't just want refined, the portions still have to be impressive.
There's so much Japanese food in the market, isn't it very competitive?
Not really because our target audience is different. Eighty per cent of our customers are local, while places like Japan Food Town get 50 per cent locals or less. It's because we are cheaper, so locals eat here, while I've observed that people who go there are mostly Japanese. At Tanjong Pagar as well, the night crowd is mostly Japanese.
Our target isn't the Japanese crowd, it's the Singaporeans, because the Japanese working here are only here temporarily. We don't know when they will go back to Japan.
Also, other Japanese restaurants use a lot of Japanese ingredients so their food costs are high, and prices are high. My target is to make Japanese food affordable, and reach customers that cannot afford other Japanese restaurants..
So where do you get your ingredients from?
We use a lot of ingredients from Japanese companies, but not necessarily from Japan.
For example, our eggs are produced in Singapore - the company has Japanese investors. So the cost is different, but the taste is the same. So even though it comes from Woodlands, they're good quality eggs. We could get cheaper ones from Malaysia but we don't use those. The thing is, others can get the cheapest ones from Japan, and call them Japanese eggs. But we get them from Singapore so we can afford to get better quality ones.
Same thing with our tempura prawns, which are from a Japanese company in Thailand. The practices and processes are controlled by the Japanese, but the production is in Thailand. It's the same Japanese quality, and comes from the same sea.
But I do import Japanese ingredients such as soup bases which are from Japan.
Is that a tactic you picked up because of your previous work experience? What else has that experience helped you with?
I know about these companies because my consulting experience helped me build a network in Asia. So when I was consulting with Japan Street in Johor for example, the prawns from Thailand went to Japan then to Kuala Lumpur, then to Johor Baru. It was a very long route, and the price became 2.5 or 3 times more because of the logistic fees. But I know how to cut out the middlemen, so I can get the same prawns directly.
It's the same here. Prawns from Thailand go to Japan before coming to Singapore. This means there's also time loss. From Japan it takes maybe a week or 10 days. But I get it directly within about three days. Even my eggs are delivered fresh every day.
There are so many Japanese F&B companies out there, how do you pick the ones you want to take overseas?
When I was doing consulting, I met a lot of people. When I wanted to open this place, a lot of people wanted to take part. But I had to choose based on the quality of food, the way the people worked, and whether the company had the potential to go international.
For example, the owners of my omurice stall have a curry udon stall in Malaysia. So they have a bit of experience in doing overseas business. All my Japan Foods Garden stalls have experience. The sushi stall has a bigger outlet at Japan Food Town which is doing well, but they said operations there are very hard because the stall is too big, so they wanted to try out a smaller one here.
You're from Taiwan, but you don't like Taiwanese food?
I find Taiwanese food very oily, so I definitely prefer Japanese food. Having said that, I would like to bring in Taiwanese food that I like, especially the snacks. Fried oysters, smelly tofu - they are really very good.