When Blue Bottle Coffee – a café chain started in Oakland, California – opened its first two stores in Tokyo in 2015, the consumer response was tremendous. Business Insider reported that within days of opening, both stores saw massive crowds of people waiting for up to four hours for a cup of coffee. The truly dedicated were at the store long before opening: Blue Bottle creative director Saki Igama recalls that the first customer for the Kiyosumi store arrived at 3:45am.
While the Wall Street Journal noted that long lines were nothing new for Tokyoites eager to visit newly-arrived overseas chains, Blue Bottle's approach to coffee is undoubtedly responsible for its continued success. That approach stems from founder James Freeman's obsessive attention to detail and freshness when it comes to delivering his product. The company roasts all of its beans on-site and the final product is bound by a vow made by its founder:
“I will only sell coffee less than 48 hours out of the roaster to my guests, so they may enjoy coffee at peak flavor. I will only use the finest, most delicious, and responsibly sourced beans.”
Moreover, each cup is individually brewed. On their opening day, Blue Bottle sold 800 cups of coffee, each brewed one at a time using a pour over method. This attention to detail resonates well with Japan's coffee consumers. Like Freeman, the Japanese take their coffee very seriously. According to Business Insider, Japanese coffee masters use customized, hand-carved bamboo paddles to stir each hand-brewed cup, taking care not to touch the edge of the vessel with the paddle and never stirring more than four times. "You're vulgar if you pour coffee out of an urn in certain shops in Tokyo," Freeman told B.I. "People train themselves to a very high degree of precision that I've never seen anywhere else."
An incredible, surreal view from last night's @bluebottlejapan holiday party. We could not be more excited. pic.twitter.com/eEydDeXKe4— Blue Bottle Coffee (@bluebottleroast) February 2, 2015
Bagels As An Experience
Now Blue Bottle's success may be replicated by Eltana, a 4-store Seattle wood-fired bagel chain. Last fall, The Seattle Times writes, Eltana received an email from Masahiro Fujio, the president of Fujio Food System, which owns and operates 700 restaurants in Japan and around the world. Fujio had enjoyed an Eltana bagel while on business in Seattle and hoped to convince its co-founder and president Stephen Brown to expand into Japan. After some prodding, including a visit by five Fujio reps, a deal was made and Brown granted Fujio a license. The first Japanese Eltana stores will open Osaka or Tokyo later this year.
In an email to the Times, Fujio Food representative Natsuko Tokaji described Mr. Fujio's experience at Eltana. “Always, he enjoys food with [his] five senses and happened to visit Eltana and was fully impressed. He never had such a tasty bagel!” It is the Eltana bagel-as-experience that Fujio hopes to replicate in Japan. “We have quite a few bagel shops in Japan,” Tokaji continued in his email. “However, wood-fired, hand-made, warm, heartfelt bagels cannot be found here.”
The Power Of Five
In "The Power of Five, " an article about the enjoyment of food in Japan, Savoryjapan.com discusses the importance of the five senses and how detail – in place setting, serving, food arrangement, and even atmosphere – plays a role in the overall experience of a meal:
"Food should be enjoyed with all five of the senses: taste and smell are obvious, but sight figures predominately in Japanese cuisine. In fact, it can be considered just as important as taste. The artful arrangement of food on appropriate and beautiful tableware adds so much to the enjoyment of the meal that it cannot be stressed enough. No matter how delicious your perfectly simmered halibut may be, the result can be ruined with a white round dish (wrong shape) that shows the drippings (wrong color.)"
The article notes five colors (white, black, red, green and yellow), five tastes, five ways of preparation, and finally, five attitudes that all play a role in the preparation, presentation, and enjoyment of a meal. All of it amounts to an organic sensibility shared by Blue Bottle and Eltana that represents a worldview that is just as artistically expressed in coffee or a bagel as it is a canvas or scroll. Whether they know it or not, Eltana's mission statement – "to make a deliciously different bagel and bring it directly to you with flair, warmth and soul" – summarizes that spirit. So does Blue Bottle's ethos of excellence in every aspect, from bean to cup. "People (in Japan) have different ways of conceptualizing about coffee so they taste things differently," Andrew Smith, a Barista at one of Blue Bottle's Tokyo stores, told Business Insider. "They are looking for different kinds of things in coffee. And that is a fun way to learn how everyone in the world perceives coffee differently."
Cover photo: Moyan Brenn via Wikimedia Commons