Trek across town from Shibuya’s hectic scramble crossing with the big Starbucks sign hanging over it to the quaint Kiyosumi area, and you’ll find a bunch of smaller, unassuming buildings. One of them has a little blue bottle painted on its plain, off-white exterior. That would be the first international location for Bay Area boutique coffee chain, Blue Bottle Coffee.
After setting up locations around the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York, founder James Freeman didn’t fly to a place like Seattle or Portland. The next stop? Tokyo, Japan.
As a big fan of Japanese culture, especially their cafe or “kissaten" culture, entering the Japanese market was a dream for Freeman. Rather than seeing it as just the huge business market that it is and add another big neon sign to the metropolitan light show in bustling Shinjuku, he chose to set up shop in a smaller, coffee-sipping neighborhood that shared characteristics with Oakland and connect with “real” Japan.
Sitting down with Blue Bottle Coffee’s Saki Igawa, the Business Operations Manager for Japan, that theme of authenticity could be felt well after the last sip of their Bella Donovan brew. It is at their foundation, and that is what Igawa feels is a big key to succeeding in the Japan market. Rather than being a company coming in from abroad just to make money, really showing Japanese people that they understand and respect Japanese culture is huge in conveying that they want to be a part of the community. That is why rather than create a boom and sprinkle the country with a bunch of trendy cafes, they prefer to take it slowly and focus on their quality and coffee-making craft.
Igawa saw that genuine approach from the moment she began at the position. Not only did she have to learn the job, she had to learn James Freeman himself so she could be his Japanese voice - something that no translation service is capable of doing. Maintaining that level of authenticity is also why they choose to do everything in-house beyond the coffee beans. While they could’ve licensed off their Japan business to a trade company and called on a big Japanese media agency to use their promotions template, they're constantly figuring the intricate details out in real-time Slack meetings between Tokyo and California. And of course, the time difference is not the only reason why it’s not always easy.
As with any company going abroad, even one like Blue Bottle Coffee which is close with Japanese culture, there are differences in the markets themselves that need to be carefully explained. The general American consumer is more advanced, Igawa feels. Monthly subscription services for things like coffee aren’t typical yet in Japan, for example, and getting California to understand these disparities can be harder than downing a sour blend. Despite these numerous cultural and market hurdles, being able to understand and work around them is essential for any business going overseas.
While Blue Bottle is lucky to have someone like Igawa who knows the Japanese market inside and out and has experience building international bridges for various businesses, other companies wishing to enter Japan may not. Her advice is simple: Find the right partner.
As for Blue Bottle Coffee’s in house strategy and steady growth hopes? It’s still too early to tell, but many do say the best coffee is carefully and slowly brewed.