Last September, when Nick George made his first trip back home to the UK in 11 years, he realized what was lacking in Japan – pies. He recalls seeing pies everywhere – at train stations, in pubs, at football grounds, on the seafront, stalls, at fairgrounds, in cafés, and high-street shops. Fast forward to April this year. George and a partner started a catering business, supplying pies, pasties, savory goods and condiments.
George bakes his goodies in a small facility not too far from Omori Station in Tokyo. His Japanese-American partner does the delivering. Business is starting to grow thanks to word of mouth among the British community in Tokyo.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros hears more about the business while sampling a freshly baked Cornish pasty, with egg salad, tomato and cucumber.
Where did your love of food come from?
When I used to live and work in Sydney in the early 1990s, I was amazed at the diversity and quality of food there and became friends with two restaurateurs. They educated me in what was right and what wasn’t in food.
What brought you to Japan?
That’s a long story. I had a business disaster in Australia and for a while I was actually homeless in the UK. Fortunately, my younger brother (who is a cordon bleu chef, by the way) helped me. Then out of the blue, a friend in Hong Kong got me a job there. I saw a lot of exotic foods I had never seen before and I started practicing baking. My friends were my guinea pigs and I was really enjoying cooking. In 1995, I first came to Japan and worked as an advertising creative director, but I still kept my interest in baking. I had a stint in Dubai in 1996 before returning to Japan in 1998. For a few years, I did freelance advertising work for a couple of agencies.
How did you come up with the idea to go into the baking business?
Last September, I went back to Britain for my first visit in 11 years. Everywhere I went, there were pies. I thought they were pretty good and that there might be a market for them in Japan, especially since British food had a reputation for not being very good. That’s changed now, thanks to celebrity chefs.
In October, I started making pies and giving them to friends. I got lots of positive feedback and in November and December, all my friends wanted pies for their companies’ Christmas parties and this time they were willing to pay me. Some wanted to give them to Japanese friends to prove that British food was not rubbish. In February, I started thinking about making a business of it and in March, we got some seed money.
How’s business been since you started?
In April, our first large catering event was to provide 200 pies to the British embassy spring barbecue party. Suddenly, I had gone from delivering six pies to friends to catering for 200 people. We had to bake them at a pub in Yokohama because I didn’t have the oven capacity that I do now. All the food was eaten in 90 minutes. People were flocking to us. About 40% of the guests were Japanese and initially they were hesitant, especially with the Scotch mutton pies, but once word got out, the pies disappeared. It was like an invisible vacuum cleaner making them go.
A lot of our business cards were taken, and from this, word of mouth started to spread. The following week I got pie orders coming in from a brokerage company for a Wednesday lunch, then another order for Friday. Since then, we have done many office lunch deliveries, a very large order for Citigroup, plus we catered the VIP party for the launch of the Lotus Evora sports car last month.
We have been invited back to help cater the British embassy summer barbecue, and will be providing packed lunches for the October Tokyo to Yokohama Lotus rally, and that will be 400 individual lunches. It’s amazing. I haven’t needed to advertise.
What are your most popular items?
The range of products includes Cornish pasty, English pork pies, Tandoori chicken pies with fresh coriander which everyone seems to love, Thai green chicken curry pies, Scotch egg pies, lamb and mint pasty, herbed pork and apple pasties. I also make my own pastry and only ever use fresh herbs, never dried herbs.
Is it hard to find fresh ingredients?
It is easier now than it used to be. Over the last four or five years, Japanese supermarkets have gone European with better quality cheeses, bread and condiments. Some herbs are still difficult to find, such as fresh sage, but I know all the supermarkets and can find it. The only frustration is that I can’t buy everything at one place.
How can customers place orders?
I take orders online. Your order may be delivered the following day but usually I require two days’ notice. My partner does all the delivering; he used to be a garbage truck driver and he knows all the roads.
Why is your bakery in Omori and not somewhere in central Tokyo?
Because I live nearby. Often, I don’t finish until midnight and then I am up at 5 or 6 a.m., so I need to have the bakery near where I live. Also, there is a good supermarket only five minutes’ walk away.
Where do you see the business going from here?
Ideally I would like to have a shop and a bakery in somewhere like Jiyugaoka, but I have to take it one step at a time. I also want to sell to supermarkets and third parties, so we would need vacuum packing facilities for that. But who knows? Two months ago, I didn’t think I would be doing this well.
For further information, or to place orders, visit http://www.thepieguy.biz/2101.html© Japan Today