A Café Seeking its Local Identity
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
(In our previous article We describe the founding of the Nishiogi Koto Building, an alternative development scheme of the Nishogi Koto Research Institute. This article describes their largest tenant, an independent cafe.)
One of the first missions of the Nishiogi Koto Building management team was to find a tenant for the large ground floor space facing Shinmei Road. Given its street-front entrance and its proximity to Nishi-Ogikubo Station, a café was an obvious choice as a tenant. The Nishogi Koto Research Institute is committed to providing a model of urban renewal that fosters independent vendors rather than corporate chains. They began looking for an appropriate and trustworthy partner who would create a business with a community focus. The casual Nof Coffee is the result. More spacious and airy than the usual Nishiogi café, it feels like a bit of Brooklyn in a Tokyo neighborhood. But since the owner was from outside the neighborhood, they had to find a way of fitting their trendy cafe concept into the quirky but not exactly trendy neighborhood.
On October 14, 2021, Nof Coffee opened on the ground floor of the Koto Building. Koto Building is managed by the Nishogi Koto Research Institute, which leases the building from the owner and then subleases spaces to tenants to support people who wish to open their own stores in Nishiogi. Nof Coffee, whose name means "Nishi Ogikubo Future," aims to create a space that values both the traditional craftsmanship of Nishiogi and reflects new youth-oriented food fashions. In order to make these fashions consistent with the needs of Nishiogi's largely middle-aged consumer base, the staff has been experimenting with its menu and style. We interviewed two young employees, Ayaka Tani and Shinya Ueda, who are in charge of the 11-member staff, about the progress of Nof Coffee a few months after its opening.
First, Tani explained the story behind the launch of the restaurant: “The owner is Takehiko Ogiwara, the president of a company called Mirai Kobo. He wanted to open a restaurant and found this location, so he decided to open a restaurant here. His vision matched how the owners of Koto Building expected this building to be used."
The most eye-catching feature of the cafe are the vivid wall paintings. They are the work of Nishiogi resident Eriko Harada, who studied art at the Fashion Institute in New York. The interior of the store was designed by architect Midori Segawa. While the atmosphere is stylish, Tani says the founders emphasized design rather than operational practicality, so some needed improvements became apparent soon after the restaurant started operating. She explains, “The area that's visible to customers is very spacious, with seating for about 50 people. But the background room, staff room, and kitchen are very small, and there is no place to put glasses and so on. We are in the process of installing shelves there, and we have talked about replacing all the paper cups with glasses or mugs after the shelves are installed. We are now asking a designer to design the shelves for us, especially because hot drinks should be served in mugs to keep the warm temperature. The layout of the restaurant was almost completed before we came in, so we are trying to adjust it to our own style based on what we think will work better for us. For example, we are currently installing new equipment.”
In fact, the shelves were installed later in Spring 2022, after our interview, allowing Nof Coffee to switch from serving in glass mugs rather than paper cups.
Like the design, the menu was initially outsourced and developed by an outside company. Now, however, Tani says, they are now evolving their own menu to reflect consumer demand. She states, “The original menu was developed by a culinary researcher named Makana Shono, and all the menu development was outsourced to her. Since she was not always at the cafe, we thought it would be better to establish our own style by listening to the customers' opinions about the food and drinks. So, we are now adding new items to the menu to make it more like our own style. We used to offer items that were already created by someone else, but staff members started discussing with one another what they thought would be better and more loved by our customers. This is how we are developing our menu now.”
We asked Tani, who previously worked at a patisserie and has been involved in pastry making for years, about the menu development. She told us: “The owner has been saying since the café opened that he wants people to use this place on a daily basis. If the menu is the same for a long time, people won't think of coming back often and they will get bored. So, unless we keep changing the menu, it will be difficult to get people to visit here daily. I don't have a set frequency, so I change the menu as I go along. When we get requests from customers or suggestions from our staff, we decide to create new items. Then we would eliminate the existing items and make new ones little by little, since it is difficult to change everything at once.”
American-style biscuit sandwiches are a mainstay at the cafe, and they do some creative things, like serving them with a tangy cherry sauce and pistachio ice cream as a dessert sandwich.
In developing new menu items, Tani says that analysis of the customers and communication with them has been a major source of inspiration. She explains, “On weekends, we have a lot of college students who found our cafe on Instagram, but on weekdays we have groups of mothers, neighbors, and even single male customers with a computer or books. There is an electrical outlet right there [on the island], which serves as a charging station, and there are also quite many people working there. In fact, however, there are fewer young people than I expected. About 80 to 90 percent of the customers are women. On weekday mornings, or during café hours, there are many ‘mom friends.’ I think it is easier for men to go to a restaurant with set menus than a café in Nishiogi. People who are working want to spend more time here, they usually sit at the seats with the electric charging stations. It seems that many of the male customers are those who have already visited the cafe before more often than those who came here for the first time. When we come up with new menu items, we listen to the opinions of our staff. They often tell me what they think would be good for the customers, so I make prototypes based on their suggestions.
Tani says that capturing the consumer tastes in Nishiogi meant focusing more on old-fashioned, simple sweets rather than trendy items favored by younger Tokyo trendsetters. She mentions, “It was my first time working in this kind of area. I had always worked in big downtown areas such as Roppongi or Ebisu, and popular sweets in those places were quite different from what's popular in Nishiogi. I feel that old-fashioned and simple sweets that everyone knows sell better here. People in Roppongi and Ebisu like new trending things, so new and unusual things sell very well, but I think that sweets that are easy to understand for even older people tend to sell better in this area. We are now serving a chocolate terrine, but when we first started serving it, it was not popular at all, so much so that we thought it would be better to change the expression to "raw chocolate cake" or something like that. But when I put a little bit of it on the assorted dessert plate, more and more people started eating the terrine because they got to understand what it was like and how it tasted. But that's a little different from the places I've worked at, in that I think it's more like traditional or nostalgic sweets that sell better here.”
Tani shared a memorable episode in the process of prototyping simple and delicious sweets that would be accepted by the people of Nishiogi: “When we had tarte tatin, I think tarte tatin was the most popular cake. I guess people like that kind of old-fashioned one. When I presented the prototype to the owner, it was a bit too plain looking and rather expensive. It was about double the price of the current desserts here. The cheesecake was 450 yen and the tarte tatin was 800 yen. The owner asked me if I was actually planning to sell it for that price. But I told him that the cost of the tarte tatin was just under 800 yen, and that it is usually sold for over 1000 yen in places like Roppongi and Ebisu. As a matter of fact, it became really popular. It might not have looked fancy at all, but people knew it tasted good just from the appearance, so I think that kind of thing sells, instead of something new and luxurious. The owner was a bit worried like, “Can you go for that kind of price? It looks so plain!” He thought that more beautiful and bright colors like red would sell better. I didn't think the tarte tatin would be such a hit either, but it was extremely popular in the end.”
As the trial-and-error process of menu development continues, we asked about the current popular cake and drink menu. Tani told us: “I think the most popular item right now is the assorted dessert plate. We have a dessert plate that includes cheesecake, brûlée, and terrine. Many of the female customers like to have a little bit of each, so that is the most popular plate. It is served at teatime and is usually shared by a group of people. The most popular drink is drip coffee, and our homemade ginger ale has become the second most popular drink after coffee. Honey latte and herbal tea are also popular.”
Tani says that many customers first get to know Nof Coffee through social media: “Thankfully, we have about 4,300 followers on Instagram, so when we post something, we get quite many comments from our followers. So, there are people like, ‘I saw your Instagram and came here for this particular product.’ We also have a Twitter account, and it seems that people in Nishiogi like Twitter a lot, so many Nishiogi residents say they saw our products on Twitter rather than on Instagram. We stopped selling the apple tarte tatin due to a [seasonal] lack of apples, but now we are selling it just for a short period of time, so we advertised it on Instagram and Twitter. Then, we got a lot of people who saw it and asked if we had tarte tatin.”
Both Tani and Ueda found a job at Nof Coffee through Instagram. Tani says, “I saw on Instagram that there was going to be a new cafe here, and it coincided with the time when I was thinking of changing my job, so I thought I'd just talk to the owner for a bit. He asked me to come work here right away, so I told him to let me think about it. And then I eventually decided to work here.”
According to Ueda, “I was working as an actor, but I was always interested in community development and local communities. I live in Nerima, but I used to hang out in Kichijoji often, which is not far away from here, and I really liked that area. I saw on Instagram that there was going to be a big cafe, and I became interested in looking at their posts. So I ended up contacting the owner and went through an interview.”
In the corner next to the entrance of Nof Coffee, Okuaki Kei who manages the building has a space where he and his wife Okuaki Aya organize exhibitions of photos and products related to Nishiogi. Tani describes the relationship with Okuaki and the effect the exhibition space has on the cafe. She explains, “Okuaki acts as a contact person, so when someone wants to use the space to exhibit or sell things, he tells us, "There is a person who wants to sell this kind of work." If the idea matches with ours, we will let the person use the space. On Sunday, we were supposed to host a chocolate shop for Valentine's Day, but we had to postpone it to March due to COVID. Mr. Okuaki said that he would like to hold a photo exhibition next time. Although we rent this space, basically Mr. and Mrs. Okuaki are the ones managing it, so we normally say yes to their proposals. Nishiogi residents like other Nishiogi people a lot. So, someone exhibits, his or her friends come visit here, so I feel that there is a synergistic effect on our cafe in that sense.”
The quilt store that had occupied the same space before Nof Coffee became a tenant. It was a well-known fabric store that many people visited from far away. When asked if there was pressure to open a store on the site of a long-time local favorite, Tani's answered, “I personally didn't know the quilt store in the first place, but there were and still are many people who say, "I'm glad you are still using the quilt store," which gives me the impression that it was loved for many years. Many people ask, "This place used to have a quilt shop, right?" or "When did this cafe open?" making me realize how important it was for many people, so I want to cherish this place as much as possible. I never came here when there was still a quilt store, and to be honest, I never even passed by here, but when people say things about the quilt shop, it makes me want to protect this place even more. It is the first time for me to work in an area like this, which is completely different from Roppongi Hills, and I really feel that Tokyo has many different faces depending on which area it is.”
We asked Tani and Ueda about what they hope to focus more on in the future as they continue to create a cafe that fuses the nostalgia of Nishiogi with the new things. Ueda explains, “The tarte tatin and other menus using seasonal ingredients were very popular, so I thought it would be nice to have a place where people can feel the seasons by eating our desserts. Making a place where people can enjoy themselves throughout the year through food would be great.” Tani tells us, “There are very few places where people can relax without worrying about the time. Especially, many mothers say that they don't have enough places where they can enter with strollers, so I hope that we can provide a place where they can relax with their children and just forget about the time. Also, I want to keep introducing new menu items and make this a café for people to use on a daily basis, where they can make small talk with others. I think it would be nice to have more regulars with whom we can talk and communicate.”
As these discussions show, it is not easy for a person from outside the neighborhood to grasp the characteristics of Nishiogi and reflect them in the creation of a cafe in this town. The devil is in the details of design, menu, pricing, and service. Listening to Tani and Ueda, we were able to witness their dedication to growing into a cafe accepted by the community. (James Farrer and Naho Kimura, July 8, 2022)
(Interview by James Farrer and Naho Kimura, Feb. 8, 2022, transcription and translation by Naho Kimura, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)