Pioneering a Bagel Franchise During the Pandemic

Updated: Jun 28


Bringing a Franchise Model to Nishiogi

Starting a small gastronomic business during COVID is challenging. For people looking to become their own boss, they not only have to think about the usual questions of costs and profits but also at finding a product and marketing strategy that will be less impacted by the pandemic. One strategy has been to focus on take-out. Komatsu Mami found an opportunity in the bagel business, bringing a bagel sandwich concept to Nishi-Ogikubo that had been developed by a couple in Itabashi.

Originally from Iwate prefecture, Komatsu moved to Tokyo fifteen years ago. She first worked a corporate job. But when the opportunity arose, she began working at a bagel shop. “At the time, I was thinking about starting my own business and what I wanted to do. I actually wanted to open a bar, but with the outbreak of COVID-19, I felt that it wasn’t the right time. So, I decided on a bagel shop that focuses on takeout. I was introduced to a customer from my previous workplace who has started a bagel shop, so I began working there and eventually I was able to have my own shop.”

Komatsu had no experience in gastronomy, so she chose the pathway of franchising another very small independent brand, something we have not seen very much in Nishiogi. Aoyagi Bagel in Nishiogi is a franchise of the main store in Itabashi. “I pay a fixed franchise fee every month to the Itabashi store.”

The Itabashi stores opened on September 2020 in Kami-Itabashi and Naka-Itabashi and Komatsu worked there to learn how to make bagel sandwiches. She told us that she had always dreamt to have her own business, especially while she was working in a corporate office job. “At my previous job, I realized it was unrealistic for me to continue working there forever. I wanted to work for myself, so I decided to start this business. Also, when you get too old, it becomes harder to begin something new, so I wanted to try it while I am young. So, I didn’t hesitate even though there was Covid.”

Aoyagi Bagel in Nishiogi opened in July 2021 in the middle of the pandemic. According to Komatsu, finding an ideal location was a challenge. Although she was originally looking to open the store in Setagaya, with a recommendation from her friend, she decided to settle for Nishiogi. “I never used to come here but when I visited, the streets were unexpectedly vibrant with people walking around, especially on weekends. I liked that and Nishiogi seemed calmer than Shibuya or Shinjuku areas.”

Where Aoyagi bagel stands used to be a locally owned flower shop. The building itself is old, so the rent is only 100,000 yen per month. Because this is a franchise, she consulted the brand owners in Itabashi. “I decided on the interior design such as the color of the wall with the Itabashi store owner. I actually bought the wooden sign board from Mercari (a popular marketplace app). I visited many cafes to get inspiration.”

Nishiogi did not betray Komatsu’s first impression of the area. “I like it here. Nishiogi has a strong sense of Tokyo’s low city (shitamachi – Tokyo’s traditional downtown). The Itabashi store attracts a majority of customers using SNS but here, most customers are from the neighborhood who become regulars after visiting once. I like that I can have conversations with regulars and hear about their lives. About 60 percent of the customers are regulars.”

The biggest group of customers are young women in their 20s or 30s, many of whom visit after finding out about Aoyagi Bagel on social media. “Sometimes customers show me an Instagram post and request to make the same bagel sandwiches.”

We asked Komatsu if bagels are familiar food to Japanese people. “There are some customers who are unsure what whole-grain means or what pastrami beef is.” Komatsu explains the ingredients to any customers who inquire.

Customizing Her Products

All the products sold at Aoyagi bagel are made in the Itabashi store. “All the bagels, scones, and blended cream cheeses are made from scratch at the Itabashi store and they are delivered to this store twice a week.” Bagels are frozen to keep freshness until the day of sales. Aoyagi bagel’s cream cheese combines soy milk and cream cheese which, she says, prevents the sandwiches from being too rich.

What’s distinct about the Nishiogi store is that customers can choose bagels and toppings according to their liking to create their bagel sandwiches. The menu is mostly decided by the Itabashi store owner but Komatsu also markets her own limited offer original sandwiches. One of these was a bagel with strawberry sandwiched between strawberry and chocolate Oreo cream cheese sold only for Christmas. “I think other bagel shops have seasonal menus or ingredients but here, the menu is the same all year round, so I wanted to introduce interesting bagel sandwiches once in a while.”

Aoyagi bagel offers a vast selection of bagels, toppings, and flavors of cream cheese. We asked which ones are the customers’ favorites. “The most popular bagel is the plain and the second popular is the whole grain bagel. For bagel sandwiches, it’s probably a pastrami beef sandwich with egg and cheddar cheese and the second most popular is Lox (cream cheese, salmon, lettuce, and onion). Popular toppings are smoked salmon, pastrami beef, and smoked duck”

Aoyagi bagel also sells dessert-like bagel sandwiches such as Oreo Banana and Strawberry Mango. “Oreo Banana is similar to a chocolate banana,” she said. “At the moment, the most popular sweet bagel sandwich is Anko Butter (sweet red bean paste and butter). During warmer seasons, Strawberry Mango is popular.” We also asked Komatsu what her favorite bagel sandwich combination is. “I like the Spinach Bagel with semi-dried tomato and basil cream cheese, onion, and smoked duck.”

Although the Nishiogi store is a branch of the Itabashi store Komatsu has the freedom to decide on the menu. “I can decide what to serve such as alcohol and appetizers, since neither is available at the Itabashi store. However, the Itabashi store dictates concepts for bagels.”

All the bagels sold at Aoyagi Bagels are made from scratch at the Itabashi store. The owners self-taught themselves to make bagels through trial and error. The bagels have a reputation for being close to the authentic taste. “I had customers tell me the bagels here are close to the ones from New York. A customer who has visited New York buys bagels here because it tastes similar.”

Prospects and Challenges

Aoyagi’s original coffee is a popular drink option but Komatsu is also looking to supply coffee from a local coffee shop in Nishiogi. “I have been looking into good, iced coffee in Nishiogi but I couldn’t find it during the summer so I will keep looking until next year.”

Unusual for a bagel shop, Aoyagi Bagel sells alcohol, an idea unique to Komatsu, who before Covid had been thinking of opening a bar. In the future, she is thinking about changing the lighting during the evening to create a more bar-like atmosphere. “Alcohol is not sold too often, as it is a bagel shop so, so only about two or three times a week. Alcohol is served from 5 pm. Some people drink with a bagel sandwich, but the toppings are also sold as appetizers, so some people order those.”

Once defrosted, bagels must be sold within the day. Komatsu told us that she tries to avoid food loss as much as possible. “I aim to sell out all bagels before closing as they can’t be sold the next day. Since the amount sold is different on weekdays and weekends so I adjust accordingly. I try to avoid creating food loss. I also use an app called “Tabete” that allows customers to buy and pick up bagels that weren’t sold that day for a cheaper price.

As it is a bagel shop, take out is the focus but at the beginning of the Omicron variant outbreak, even more customers chose take out. “There were more customers who dined inside before Omicron. There was a time that I had to restrict numbers of customers inside the shop.”

Aoyagi Bagel is located on the Heiwa Dori Shopping Street, alongside many other small independent cafes and restaurants nestled against the trellises of Chuo train line. “We are all friendly to each other around here, exchanging food that remained after closing.” “I was also involved in a neighborhood event, I think it was stamp rally, last Christmas.”

Komatsu runs and manages the shop by herself which can be extremely demanding physically. “I don’t find it lonely to work by myself but as I work full time six days a week, it can be exhausting and that’s when I wish there was a part-time worker. I am currently too focused on keeping the business that I don’t have time to think about the recipe for new bagel sandwiches for example. So it would be great to hire a part-time work so that I have more time available.” Komatsu added that she has recently hired a part-time worker. When they gain experience, Komatsu’s burden will be reduced.

Despite the hard work, Komatsu prefers her current lifestyle to when she had a corporate job. “I prefer doing this to working as a corporate employee. I have to do everything myself and it’s all up to me so I feel that I have the freedom to do things I want to do.”

Of course, she also finds joy in running her own business. “When many customers visit or they tell me how good bagels are here I feel happy.” The shop is doing relatively well economically, she said. “I think we are doing okay. I can’t say that we are doing extremely well but yeah, we are fine for now.”

Lastly, we asked how she would like to develop the shop in the future. “I want many more customers to come. I feel that Aoyagi Bagel is not widely known at the moment. Even people who live in Nishiogi have never heard of the store. Advertising on Instagram and Twitter isn’t enough, so I hope to do so somehow. Also, I want to start selling bagels at companies and schools at an unattended stall.”

Komatsu is pursuing a franchise business model we have only seen a few times in Nishiogi. She is pioneering a franchise outlet for a very small independent brand from another part of Tokyo. Without brand recognition, business experience and during the middle of a pandemic, this could be a risky venture. However, with her creativity and hard work, Komatsu seems to be making a go of realizing her dream of being her own boss in the food and beverage industry. (James Farrer and Mana Nomoto May 30, 2022)

(Interview by James Farrer and Mana Nomoto Feb. 8, 2022, translation and transcription by Mana Nomoto, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright James Farrer all rights reserved)

159 views0 comments