A Cafe that Doesn’t Waste its Past
Makita Ayumi is a café owner with deep roots in Nishiogi. Her Café Gallery K references her family history, life story, and ideals. One principle she holds dear is, “don’t waste,” which is reflected in how she deals with food and also the café space. The café itself is a layering of elements from its previous incarnations as a jazz bar and a gallery, reusing the material and design elements left behind by previous tenants back to the 1970s. Makita is an escapee from corporate life, and she also sees the café itself as a space of escape for her customers fleeing the stresses of the city.
In the late 1960s, Makita’s grandparents bought the land where Café Gallery K is located and in 1970 built the building that stands there today. The original tenant on the second-floor space, which is where Café Gallery K stands, was a mahjong parlor. After the parlor closed, a jazz bar was opened. After that too closed, the space was empty for a few decades. Makita’s mother opened a gallery in 2010. “After the jazz bar had closed,” Makita explained, “this place was empty for a long time, but my mother decided to start a gallery here for painting exhibits, pearl sales, and bossa nova live events. [In 2013] I decided that I want to open up a café so we put “Café” before “Gallery K” and opened it as a café. That’s how it started.”
As the name “Café Gallery” would suggest, five intriguing paintings hang on the long back wall, welcoming the interest of customers. “Those paintings are not for sale,” Makita said. “Some of them are my mother’s paintings and others were gifts from her art teachers. One teacher (Tsuchiya Reiichi) is a professor at Musashino Art University. They are painted with natural pigments so the surface glitters.”
In addition to her family’s ties to the neighborhood that date back to her grandparents, Makita is fond of the suburban cityscape of Nishiogi, which is still convenient to the city center. Even though the jazz bar closed 30 years ago, the café has retained many of the interior elements. “Although I have added few things, I think this place retains mementos of that jazz bar,” she said.
We wondered why Makita consciously chooses to keep the place as it was even though she did not know about the jazz bar until she was a university student. “Because of my idea of not wasting things (mottainai), I have kept many things as they were,” she told us. “I have changed a few things such as the lighting. But for example, this table is made with a single board of a large lily tree. It is extremely difficult to purchase this type of table. And the floor is made with unprocessed wood which again is difficult to create nowadays. I was also thinking about changing out the wooden shutters, but I was told it would be difficult, so I decided to alter the middle one to fit it to another window. More than eighty percent of the atmosphere is kept the same as before. I have added new lighting and sofas, but I try to choose furniture that does not ruin the atmosphere from the past.”
The café is Makita’s own escape from corporate life. “Before opening a café I was working at a company in the sales job,” she said. “I like customer service jobs, but it was extremely stressful for me to sell products that I did not believe in. I had to. I was told by the boss to recommend products that are not durable, and that was painful, so I quit the job. I do think that it was a good opportunity though. I was surrounded by lovely people, too.”
Disillusioned with corporate life, she decided to pursue her dream of creating her ideal lifestyle space in the form of a café. Visiting cafes was Makita’s hobby, and her mother had already opened the gallery space. “I like going to a café and spending time alone,” she said. “I can concentrate on tasks more than at home, and If I want drinks, I can just order even though seats are sometimes too closely placed, or I can hear the conversation of people sitting next to me. I realized that I wanted to have such a space of my own and offer it to other people. I decided to open a café with a large personal space for customers. I think everyone longs for a secret base especially when we don’t have much money. I didn’t know about this place until I was a university student but since then, I had used this place as a secret base to have a party, and even when I was working, I wanted to use this place like that again. Then, my mother started a gallery here, so I also began a café here.”
Customers in Café Gallery K treasure the large space that prevents private conversations from being overheard, Makita said. “Many customers who visit this café come alone, at most two or three people. A group of over four customers rarely visit these days. It might be due to the decrease in the number of customers because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Sometimes people use this café to have a meeting to avoid leaking private information because other chain cafes’ seats are so close that conversations easily can be overheard. So, some customers use this big table to discuss contracts, investments, or insurance. What I often notice is manga artists and manga editors having a meeting here. There are many artistic people living in Nishiogi.”
Recently, non-Japanese customers increasingly visit the café as well. According to Makita, more than seventy percent of customers are regulars. Makita tries to communicate with customers so that they will continue to visit the café again. “Many customers of the café are from around Nishiogi, so we talk about the town. Or if the customers are from far away, I talk to them about where they came from. I usually have conversations with customers sitting at the counter table. Middle-aged ladies are also very friendly too, and they kindly start a conversation with me. I think that customers whom I had a conversation with are more likely to visit repeatedly.”
The varied menu includes drinks, hot savory meals, and desserts. All food and drink are from Makita except for the chiffon cake which is made by Makita’s mother. “All dishes are homemade,” Makita said with pride. “I run the café alone so I choose to serve food that I can cook without panicking when many customers come at once, for example, donburi [a rice bowl dish topped with meat, fish, and/or vegetable]. I wish I could serve pasta as well, but I would have to keep an eye on it so it’s difficult for me. So, I choose to make dishes that can be made in advance and give them the final touch when serving.”
Makita described to us the popular dishes from the menu. “The large size latte is popular,” she said. “But depending on the season, coffee may not be ordered at all even though I opened a café because I like coffee. So instead, sometimes I am making the lemon ginger drink constantly. But I am still happy because the lemon ginger syrup is also homemade. In terms of meals, nibuta [braised pork] is very popular but chicken curry is the most repeated dish by customers. I also make my curry from spices. Popular dessert dishes are fondant chocolate and crème brûlée.”
She also creates new items and seasonal items. “I work freely around what I find that seems delicious. Bamboo shoots are in season right now, so I serve chinjaorose-don [stir-fried pepper, bamboo shoot, and beef topped on rice]. For my seasonal tarts, I am currently using apple, but I am thinking of using strawberry next.”
Despite Makita cooks and creates recipes alone, she is a self-taught chef. “Usually, I research through going to different cafes and looking at desserts at convenient stores,” she explained. “Convenient stores surprisingly have trendy desserts, so I observe like, ‘Oh, the custard is popular or now, shiratama [sweet rice dumplings] are trendy.’ Basque cheesecake that I serve at the café is totally inspired by [the convenience store] Lawson. Trends change quickly but desserts that remain at the convenience store for a long time are bound to be popular so making those desserts never fail, I think. I also try my best to create my own recipe by reading different recipes, baking it many times, and perfecting it through trial and error. I have never been to a culinary school but by reading through recipes. I have considered studying with someone, but as I bake, I realized I have a very particular way I want to follow, so I decided that I would rather use trial and error by myself to serve delicious food.”
Makita avoids using chemical ingredients in her pastries. “When I am creating a recipe, I look through the internet, YouTube and read many different recipe books published by famous pâtissiers. If you are taught by someone, you would have to stick with that person’s recipe. However, oftentimes, these recipes include chemical ingredients such as baking soda, or margarine instead of butter, and also artificial fragrances and coloring. I don’t agree with using those ingredients, so I avoid them as best as I can.”
Makita, for example, substitutes baking powder with more egg white. She may bake the same cake at least twenty times while adjusting ingredients. She is still considering making little adjustments to her Basque cheesecake recipe that has been served at the café for about a half year.
Makita aims to create a comfortable and relaxing space. “Customers often tell me that they feel sleepy at the café,” she said. Still, she feels that this quiet atmosphere makes this a good place to work. “I like visiting cafes because I like to work in cafes, and I think I have successfully created a space where people can work more efficiently than at home and chat more than in the library.”
Makita tries to conserve resources. She doesn’t promote take-out due to her concerns about the increase in plastic waste. “It’s about feeling guilty,” she said. “For example, I don’t cook deep-fried dishes often because it is time-consuming, but also because I do not want to drain used oil into the sink. I also don’t like using too many plastic bags although I do use them because of the convenience. I have a strong feeling about waste and strong attachments to things I own so I want to manage them as carefully as I can. I also try to reduce the amount of disposal. For example, I once wanted to serve pancakes at the café but I didn’t like the idea of disposing of leftover syrup as it can’t be offered to other customers. So, I decided not to serve pancakes at the café. I do worry about the environment.”
As well as managing the café, Makita also has other jobs. “I own real estate, investments, and a coin laundry [downstairs from the café]. People use it to wash seasonal items such as down jackets or curtains. While waiting for the laundry to be done, some people come to this café.”
The popular greengrocer, located on the lower floor of Café Gallery K has been renting the place from Makita’s family for about 30 years. The only disadvantage it brings is that due to its popularity, people often fail to notice that there is a café above. But Makita added that the advantage of having a greengrocer below, which is that she can replenish ingredients quickly, outweighs the disadvantage.
Many people may imagine café owners’ lives as slow and romantic, but Makita shared her insight from a business perspective. “To put it simply, a café is not profitable,” she said. “Not at all profitable. I can manage while running the café freely as I have other jobs, which I am really thankful to my parents for. I think you would struggle to earn your living from just a café. It is because average customer spending is low. Many people are hesitant to pay more money for a cup of coffee, unlike alcohol. It is a struggle to get by with just the profit of the café so I sometimes open a laptop class here.”
If an average customer spending is low, then the solution might be to increase the number of customers. But it is not so simple. Increasing the number of customers would overload Makita, as her wish is to maintain the level of customer service and the quality of the food.
“I once hired a part-time worker as it became too busy to handle the increase in customers. But I was not satisfied with the level of the worker’s customer service. That upset me so I would ask for an improvement, but it was not fixed. So, I decided that I would rather manage the café alone with the customer service that I am satisfied with, even if it means lower profit.
The current situation of Café Gallery K is difficult. The number of customers has fallen and the café is unable to receive financial aid from the government as it does not meet the requirements of opening late. However, Makita wishes to continue opening the café to welcome those customers who visit on the weekends.
We asked Makita for advice for those who wish to begin a café. “To be honest, I do not recommend it,” she said bluntly. “If you were to open a café, you have to think carefully about its location. My café is at the second floor so there are more regulars than new customers. This is good in a sense as strange people don’t enter the café, but overall, the number of customers is relatively low. I think running a café can be enjoyable with enough customers and staff but without any added values other than a café, I think it would be difficult. A lot of cafes go out of business these days. Cafes in Nishiogi are still surviving because there are fewer chain stores compared to other towns. Chain stores increase challenges for independent stores to stay in business. Nishiogi is the only town in Suginami district without a Starbucks, though there is a Doutor (a popular chain café). I think that is the part of the reason why independent shops in Nishiogi are surviving.”
More than most types of eateries, a café is an expression of the ideals and lifestyle aspirations of the owner. It is, however, not always a practical business model. Makita warns us against jumping into the business. Still, her own café is an island of small gustatory pleasures and escape from the pressures of urban life. (James Farrer and Mana Nomoto June 1, 2021)
(Interview by James Farrer and Mana Nomoto March 26, 2021, translation and transcription by Mana Nomoto, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright James Farrer all rights reserved)