A Corporate Restaurant In Our Neighborhood
Nishi-Ogikubo residents are proud of the concentration of small independent-owned restaurants in the neighborhood. So, can a corporate-owned restaurant become a part of this neighborhood restaurant scene and even a part of the local community? We visited one of the newer entrants to find out.
“We thought we should be able to ‘coexist’ with other restaurants instead of seeing them as rivals,” explained Ayako Inukai, a manager at the Setagaya-based restaurant corporation Camel Kitchen Co., Ltd. that runs Hagare Nishi-Ogikubo. Hagare is a stylish “wine bar” (and full-service restaurant) owned by the Camel Kitchen and located only a two-minute walk from the station at a lively intersection of two pedestrian alleyways. Its open glass front easily invites in new guests, and there are two tables outdoors for those who prefer that. When asked why Camel Kitchen chose a neighborhood that already featured many restaurants to open a new branch, Inukai pointed out the peculiar drinking and dining culture of Nishiogi. She said, “Eating at just one place is not enough for many people,” she said. “They move to another place and keep drinking. The culture of barhopping is deeply rooted in Nishi-Ogikubo. Since people drinking in Nishi-Ogikubo are used to drinking while dining at restaurants, I think they have contributed to creating a culture of going to different places and enjoying themselves, rather than staying at the same restaurant for a long time.”
Hagare Nishi-Ogikubo marked its third-year anniversary in June 2021. It employs about fifteen workers, including full-time and part-time staff. About half of the part-timers are students, some of whom used to be customers of the restaurant. The head manager, Naoto Hashiguchi, has learned French cuisine in vocational school. In addition to Hashiguchi, area managers rotate between branches, sometimes filling in as head manager. This is also a way of ensuring consistency in taste and service among the branches.
Despite being a corporate-owned restaurant, the staff at Hagare have tried to integrate the business into the social life of the surrounding community. One important neighborhood institution supplying food served at Hagare Nishi-Ogikubo is the open-air greengrocer Odaka Shoten, located directly across the alleyway from the restaurant. Odaka Shoten is the kind of place where school children pall around with the jocular staff while adults are shopping. Hashiguchi told us about a special bond that Hagare formed with the greengrocer.
“We are really close,” Hashiguchi said. “They were nice to us from the beginning, which I think is a characteristic of Nishi-Ogikubo. Workers at Odaka Shoten remember our birthdays and we even celebrate each other’s birthdays. We buy all vegetables there, so the quality is good. The prices are relatively cheap, and they are very flexible with our orders, so we get vegetables from them for lunch and the signature dishes for dinner. Sometimes, they recommend us their products, saying ‘Do you want to use this for today’s menu?’ They once let us buy a huge box of basil at a very cheap price, though basil is usually quite expensive. Other branches of Hagare have to buy vegetables from certain suppliers online, while we can check the products with our own eyes and buy directly from Odaka Shoten.”
The other type of linkage that is important to Hagare are close ties with other companies in the same corporate family. Especially, many products from Kaldi Coffee Farm, a company in the same corporate group, are also used for Hagare’s menus, including pastas, tomato sauces, cheese, coffee, and wines. “We introduce to our customers that some of our menus use products from Kaldi,” Hashiguchi said. “They also ask us if they can purchase the coffee they are drinking here at Kaldi.”
While Hagare has a central kitchen, only a very few menu items, such as spaghetti sauces and baked sweets, are made there. According to Inukai, most of dishes at Hagare are cooked at each branch by the staff there. Hashiguchi told us about how they avoid letting regular customers become bored with their offerings. “Lunch menus differ every day depending on the branch, but we try to increase the range of menu items, using vegetables from Odaka Shoten, so that our customers have many options to choose from. This is mainly because we have many regular customers who come here every day, three times a week, or every weekend. The most popular dish is the fresh cheeses, which are chilled, instead of frozen, and imported from Italy. It’s really delicious. Whipped burrata is also quite popular.” Hagare's popular assorted fresh cheese plate includes imported mozzarella, burrata, and treccia, which are imported by an affiliate company.
As the head manager, Hashiguchi chooses some of the wines served at Hagare Nishi-Ogikubo. Many, but not all, are also sold at Kaldi and all are supplied by an affiliate company. “I choose wines that change daily depending on what’s available,” he said, “or what I’d like to recommend to our customers. Some of the wines are not actually available at Kaldi, since some wines are directly distributed to restaurants, not to Kaldi. We have another affiliated company called Overseas, which is in charge of importing wines. Together with people at the wine department in Overseas, we choose wines that go well with our menus.”
At Hagare Nishi-Ogikubo about thirty to forty percent of the customers are regulars. Hashiguchi tells us that workers are always aiming at friendly customer service. He says, “Although seventy percent of the customers are women during lunch hours, overall, we have almost the equal number of male and female customers. There are families, couples, as well as those who come alone. Some customers also come here alone during lunchtime or after their work to work on their laptops. We workers recognize some customers and have a conversation like ‘that customer is here again!’ To the regular customers whom we know well, we communicate with them in a friendly way. The friendliness in our customer service attracts many first-time customers to visit us again…. As for our strategy to advertise our restaurant, we use Instagram and put a poster at Kaldi at Nishi-Ogikubo station. Also, since people who walk by can see inside the restaurant through the glass, I think it is quite easy for them to just stop by, look at the menu at the door, and decide to come in.”
Inukai also highlights the bright and friendly atmosphere in Nishi-Ogikubo. She says, “At Hagare’s branches in Shimokitazawa and Shibuya, the customers include more business workers than neighbors. But for Nishi-Ogikubo, there are many customers who live in this neighborhood. When the first Hagare’s branch opened in Shimokitazawa, the head manager there was very friendly with the customers, which has influenced how workers interact with customers at Hagare, including other branches.”
As Hagare has been affected by the pandemic, Hashiguchi tells us the efforts they have been making to sustain their restaurant: “It was really tough especially during the state of emergency and quasi-emergency measures when we were not allowed to serve alcohol, but we have been more focusing on lunch and café hours, trying to have as many customers then as possible since only a lot less come for dinner. We also do UberEats and takeout. However, now that many people actually eat in [in June 2021], takeout is not as popular as before, around February and April. Since more people are now drinking at home, assorted appetizers, pizzas, and meat dishes are popular for takeout. Currently, we also sell bread from a bakery called CUPIDO in Setagaya, which has been chosen as one of the one hundred best bakeries in Tokyo. Every morning, they deliver fresh-baked bread by car. Some customers who bought their bread come back to Hagare for lunch.”
During the pandemic, loyal regular customers in Nishi-Ogikubo have helped sustain Hagare. The second sustaining factor is strong linkages to companies in the larger corporate group, including Kaldi. And, third, there are connections to local suppliers, especially the greengrocer Odaka Shoten across the alleyway. Centered around the Odaka Shoten, the employees have also developed friendly relations with other restaurant owners who shop there. Inukai tells us: “We’re genuinely grateful that those who have been running a business for a long time here in Nishi-Ogikubo are accepting us.” In sum, Hagare has survived in the competitive Nishi-Ogikubo restaurant scene both through mobilizing corporate linkages and forming local ties. (James Farrer and Naho Kimura, Aug. 25, 2021)
(Interview by James Farrer and Naho Kimura June 14, 2021; transcription and translation by Naho Kimura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)