executive impact

Bringing Italian cafe culture to Japan

43 Comments
By Chris Betros

Transplanting Italian café culture to Japan is a big challenge, but it’s one that Gen Saito relishes. Saito, director of marketing & planning and new business development for Pronto Corporation, took on the job two years ago and in a market dominated by big chains such as Starbucks, Tully’s and traditional Japanese "kissaten," he and his team have managed to create a niche for the relatively new brand of espressamente illy.

“It’s hard to pronounce, even for Japanese,” admits Saito who refers to the brand as just illy. “Pronto is the master franchisee for illy in the Japanese market. The brand owner is in Trieste, Italy. We don’t intend to become a giant coffee chain like Starbucks. Our strategy is to position espressamente as a next-generation café. We currently have 17 outlets, two of which are owned by private franchisees. Three are in Osaka and Kyoto and the rest are in Tokyo. For the time being, we will concentrate on Tokyo and perhaps Osaka until people start recognizing what our brand is.”

Saito is certainly the man to make it happen. He has spent most of his working career with Suntory (which owns Pronto), including eight years in Australia and New Zealand. “It was hard to readjust to Japanese corporate culture,” he admits. He had a stint at McDonald’s before rejoining Pronto in 2007. Pronto, which operates some 200 outlets, has always been at the forefront of the coffee business in Japan. “The concept of a café and bar was new when Pronto started it 20 years ago,” Saito points out.

The biggest challenge for espressamente illy is getting Japanese consumers to understand and accept the concept of Italian coffee-drinking culture.

“It is a genuine Italian café and bar. Consumers come in for 5-10 minutes and have a quick shot of one espresso, while standing up, and then go. In Milan, bars are everywhere and popular spots to take a quick break. You don’t spend too much time there like in Japan,” explains Saito. “Many Japanese people who don’t know much about us come in expecting something like Starbucks and sometimes they complain that the coffee cup is too small. At some espressamente locations, there are no table and chairs where they can sit down and read for an hour or so. We explain this is the genuine Italian coffee drinking style. Of course, some of those customers never come back, but I think many enjoy the new experience of drinking coffee.”

Finding the right location is another challenge. Pronto has a store development department that focuses on location hunting every day. Saito says that when new buildings go up, there is always a lot of competition among the coffee chains to get into the lobbies.

“The entrance to a big office building is one of the ideal spots for the espressamente ‘Rolling Store’ concept (a store with small counter unit), because people are always coming and going. Population traffic is the most important factor, which is why we have set up outlets at terminal stations and airports. From a financial point of view, it is better, too, because with a small counter unit, your investment cost is not as high. Starbucks and Tully’s don’t have our type of format and they require a certain amount of space to accommodate tables and chairs. We don’t require a closed space.”

Naturally, the espressamente illy staff have to be qualified baristas. “At first, we took them to Italy for training, but now we do in-house training,” says Saito. “Store experience is important for all staff, and I spend some time each year behind the counter, serving customers. I’m not a qualified barista but I can serve a decent espresso.”

The espresso drinks served in Japan are the same as in Italy. However, there are some variations in the food menu to cater to Japanese tastes. “Pasta is important here,” says Saito. “In Italy, it may be just an appetizer. In Japan, it is often the main meal for lunch, especially for young women, so we offer a variety of pasta. All the food is made at each outlet, which makes us different from other coffee chains.” Most of the stores are open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. Like the Pronto bars, espressamente illy serves various alcoholic drinks, with sparkling wine a popular drink from happy hour onward.

Saito – who says he drinks 6-7 cups of coffee a day – visits competitors occasionally to see what they are doing. “Generally, though, I am in my office 80% of the time because I am also looking after menu development for the entire company, logistics and the promotional side of the business. We haven’t done any advertising for illy yet because the stores themselves are the best ad.”

Overall, Saito says Pronto is doing well, considering how competitive the Japanese market is. “It is a huge and very diversified market, if you include the kissaten and canned beverages,” Saito says. “I think the market is flattening out because there are coffee shops and cafes everywhere you look. The niche market is growing and new generation cafés like espressamente illy are in a good position right now.”

© Japan Today

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43 Comments
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Now get one down to Fukuoka too so I can have a decent cup of coffee next summer when I visit my family there. Starbucks s*cks seriously!

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Seriously good coffee, a big challenge working with a crowd that consumes USD 8 billion a year in canned coffee, though.

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crowd that consumes USD 8 billion a year in canned coffee, though.

Really?! Is that statistic true? If so, I am amazed! I knew Japanese liked their canned coffee, but not that much!

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Ooooh, does that mean he's gonna bring over the really idle guys with the vespas and slicked back hair, no-socks dress shoes and their cat-calling ways as well to make it real and legit-like?

Most Italians just use their Mokas.

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For the time being, we will concentrate on Tokyo and perhaps Osaka until people start recognizing what our brand is.

Like so many other businesses in Japan, Tokyo is just about all that matters. How about finding the place where people are most likely to want your product? Kyoto, for example, is Firenze's sister city. If I lived in a non-Tokyo major city in Japan and a company like this one went out of its way to choose my city over all-powerful Tokyo, I'd go regularly just out of loyalty and appreciation.

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Nice, but not for everyone.

It's businessman culture, not shopping, lunch, meeting up, or weekend culture. Definitely limited in its potential.

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Saito – who says he drinks 6-7 cups of coffee a day

A man who works proactively to prevent himself from prostate cancer.

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I’m not a qualified barista but I can serve a decent espresso.

It is very difficult to become a professional barista - I recommend him to take the exam in Italy, then I will go to his coffee shop to try a decent espresso.

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HAHAHH LoveUSA do you think that's all that matters ? I'm italian (born and grown in Rome before moving to Japan) and I can tell you not all Bar are good. Fact is, even food as you can immagine isn't good country wide, hell I know a very good italian restaurant in Osaka that realy overshadow many places in Rome heh

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The statistic on revenue from sales of canned coffee comes courtesy of the business documentary series "Gaia no Yoake", which covered the issue in its most recent episode. By the way, I think I've seen an Illy canned coffee on the shelves here, too... Illy brand ground espresso beans are sold at Costco in Kanto, they make great coffee if you have the right coffee pot.

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“It’s hard to pronounce, even for Japanese,” admits Saito.

This made me laugh. "Even for Japanese" as if they're the best in the world at pronouncing things. Oh Saito.

Illy is pretty good coffee, but what I like about Tully's and Starbucks is that I get a huge cup for what I pay for. So if the quality is only 85% (compared to Illy's 90%), I still prefer it b/c I get much more fluid that tastes just fine. Meh.

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I doubt it will work in the Japanese market. Europeans are used to a very small cup of espresso, 1/10 or less of what starbucks serves. You don't see people there walking with huge cups of coffee, as you see in US - and in Japan, due to Starbucks generous serves. Plus, I can't see Japanese having a small espresso and having small talk, like Europeans do.

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Perhaps, but there are reasons why espresso should be short. The coffee powder only release so much, the other is just water and like for anything when you add too much water, the taste change, is watered (=P), and it because of that, it also lose most of the wakeing properties of coffee. I'd rather go with quality over quantity, expecially with espresso.

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HAHAHH LoveUSA do you think that's all that matters ? I'm italian (born and grown in Rome before moving to Japan) and I can tell you not all Bar are good. Fact is, even food as you can immagine isn't good country wide, hell I know a very good italian restaurant in Osaka that realy overshadow many places in Rome heh

Have you watched the serial "The Coffee Prince"? People study for years how to make the perfect cup of coffee. This man says that he is not a professional barista. Sorry but I drink my coffee made only by qualified barista. Before I buy coffee, I would like to see the certificate of the person who makes the coffee. I do not want to pay for something that is not up to my high standards.

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When it comes to great coffee, Lavazza and Illy are the best. I hope this guy will set up shops all over Japan. Starbucks coffee is like socks juice, just undrinkable. I agree with LoveUSA, Coffee Prince was really good and being a qualified barista would only add to the coffee shops quality.

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Personally I prefer the Japanese spots where you can sit and relax for much longer periods than a short 5 - 10 minute break. One of my favourite things to do is pop into one with sketchbooks in tow and draw all the interesting faces you see (politely and discreetly of course). Really very relaxing and enjoyable. Maybe I've drawn some of you!

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Difficult to see how exactly good italian coffee will take off here when, as some posters above have commented, you take into consideration that many Japanese drink canned "coffee" (which I would use to clean my drains) and the fact that for the likes of lattes and cappucinos, many Japanese coffee shop staff still overheat the milk, even when you specifically ask for "nurume".

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They are not going to succeed in importing Italian culture to Japan - Japanese do not want to stand up to knock back an espresso and nor do many other people around the world. That's why it is Italian. It is much the same as English pubs not working in Japan, except as gaijin hang-outs or as Japonified versions of pubs.

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LoveUSA that's the reason why american's will never make a decent coffee, you are too concerned with what a piece of paper says rather then anything else. Qualified barista ? wth does that even means ? Qualified by whom ? Some other guy who, presumibly, got his from some other guy who got it from a friend of his ? Are you kidding me right ? If THAT was all that mattered, then starbuck whould be doing one hell of a coffee while it aint.

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@Byakko78-LoveUSA isn't American.

I'm all for coffee and I don't think a piece of paper really matters that much. If the coffee is good, I will go back. If it's not, I won't. My enjoyment is what matters, nothing else. Most Starbucks baristas are "qualified", which just means they were trained by a supervisor. So, I don't really trust those "qualifications" very much, anyway.

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Seriously good coffee, a big challenge working with a crowd that consumes USD 8 billion a year in canned coffee, though.

Wow, assuming each can costs approximately 3 dollars, 50 million Japanese would each have to consume over 50 cans a year to reach that level.

2.67 billion cans a year comes out to about 52 million cans per week. Pretty amazing, if those numbers are accurate.

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Wow, heated discussion going on here

I went to their flagship-store in Nihonbashi, and liked it the first time: standing space (but not the counter), comfy big chairs, and free internet in the back. The second time, the net was gone and I realized its just the atmosphere of the location, an old former bank, and interior design. They are overpriced IMHO. In Italy, coffee is not more than 1 Euro, standing. They will charge much more, not seperated by standing or sitting and in the evening (after 17.00 ?), their prices go up quite a bit. And they charge 1.500 for a pizza that arrives frozen and is just re-heated!(In that above-mentioned shop they don't even have gas, just electric plugs) Japanese attitude. A friend of mine worked they as a part-timer and was told by her manager she couldn't have a second job at the same time somewhere else, so she quit. Many "qualified" barista, at least in Tokyo, will pour you a very fancy-looking leaf pattern on the top. It's difficult, yes. But that fluid, 3 mm head does not belong on a cappuccino! I want a nice, creamy head with small bubbles that burst like champagne in the mouth!
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Pronto does a reasonable enough coffee actually.I wish I could get the quality of espresso and latte that I used to enjoy in Oz.I make my own Lavazza espresso anyhow.What I wish Japan had more of are open cafes.

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@yabits Each can costs approximately 1 dollar. So I guess multiply them figures by 3. There are vending machines half-filled with many varieties of canned coffee here ever 2 minutes (walking distance).

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God, I hate coffee snobs. Yes, canned coffee is gross but it's not the end of the world. And the espresso used by Starbuck's, Seattle's Best and Tully's isn't watered down. The bigger drinks have more milk and more espresso in them. If anything they're 'milked' down but the amount of an espresso shot (from a big chain) is the same as the amount of an Illy's espresso shot. However the coffee beans themselves may be higher quality. That being said the big chains still have pleasant and enjoyable drinks. At least to those of us that aren't total snobs about useless crap such as what kind of flavored milk goes down our throats into our bellies and eventually into the sewers.

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I agree with LoveUSA, Coffee Prince was really good and being a qualified barista would only add to the coffee shops quality.

Now imagine if there is such a place in Tokyo like a Coffee Prince coffee shop where all the men who serve the coffee are handsome and intelligent, and are certified barista, how perfect it would be.

Certified barista must recognize one coffee bean from another one (tell Arabina Mocha from Colombian) and should have very sensitive receptors for coffee taste and should be able to blend coffee beans in perfect harmony. Certified barista are actually like wine degustators and can feel the quality of the coffee by smell and taste and look and they make perfect coffee cups.

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Many "qualified" barista, at least in Tokyo, will pour you a very fancy-looking leaf pattern on the top. It's difficult, yes. But that fluid, 3 mm head does not belong on a cappuccino! I want a nice, creamy head with small bubbles that burst like champagne in the mouth!

I like the heart shapes on top of my coffee. The professional will know the exact quantity of cream to be used for the picture on top of the coffee.

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LoveUSA; You complain constantly about poesters taling about good looking women but you do the same yourself regarding men, both i find are teribly shallow and contribute nothing to the discussion refarding Italian cafe culture.

Japanese idea of Cafe culture is sitting bdown with a tepid coffe for an hour whilst chain smoking and reading manga. Culture i fear is not in demand in Japan.

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LoveUSA; You complain constantly about poesters taling about good looking women but you do the same yourself regarding men,both i find are teribly shallow and contribute nothing to the discussion

so men can be shallow as much as they can and LoveUSA cannot mimick them and joke with them? My opinion of coffee is valid too.

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We must look at each nations culture and see if it fits into another. I don`t think many Japanese want to stay in a place for a few minutes for an expensive coffee. Japanese are notoriously tight with their money in comparison with westerners and want to get free refills etc andd a comfy seat here they can read their comics or send endless text messages.

Italy likes to spead its culture without demanding others follow their ideals 100%. This bmay be why Italian cusisine and coffe culture is so popular and emulated wordlwide.

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Actually I think that there are only a few coffee shops in Tokyo that own an espresso machine. how professional is this.

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Japanese idea of Cafe culture is sitting bdown with a tepid coffe for an hour whilst chain smoking and reading manga. Culture i fear is not in demand in Japan.

Hear, hear. And complaining about the 'small' size of espressos? Sheesh, they'd better go back to the muddy water boiled drink that they have at kissatens. I also don't think it'll work here probably b/c of the ridiculous long name. Who on earth would name it 'espressamente illy'?

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But find one of the really good kissaten in Tokyo and you're in for a treat, although at 1,000 yen+ a cup. Arabica in the heart of Akasaka is a good example--the owner probably knows more about coffee beans and varieties than any Starbucks supervisor, doesn't mess around with espresso or other "fancy" beverages, and serves probably the best-tasting cup of coffee I've ever had.

So I think while there's some validity to the negative opinions about Japanese "coffee culture" (it's true that, after the war, highly acid, almost sour coffee was considered "good" coffee--many old people still prefer it that way), you can't really paint the whole market with the same brush.

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I'm curious as to how much one of these espresso drinks would cost. If they are really cheap (say 200yen), then these types of cafes could provide a quick pick-me-up for those on the go. But if the prices are comparable to other sit-down coffee shops, then I doubt this idea is gonna fly.

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Personally, I have no major problem with the Japanese chains - except for the constant waft of smoke - even in the non-smoking section. Occasionally, an old fella will just ignore the signs and light up in the non-smoking areas anyway!

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I like the heart shapes on top of my coffee. The professional will know the exact quantity of cream to be used for the picture on top of the coffee.

Its not the quantity of the cream, but the fact that it has to be half-fluid, otherwise you couldnt pour it into a fancy shape. Whereas a cappuccino IMHO should have some fine-bubbled head which slowly mixes with the milk/espresso beneath so that you don't have a clear seperation-line.

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@dolphingirl Espresso solo 300, dopio 400, cappuccino piccolo 350, grande 400 etc btw, these are from a pic I took, not from their hp which is nonusable for this, no prices, just high quality, delicious-looking pics

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Niche market is growing in everything, and most big-name companies are trying to ignore it. Japans niche cafe market is a tough nut to crack am looking forward to hear more from illy.

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Consumers come in for 5-10 minutes and have a quick shot of one espresso, while standing up, and then go.

This is unimaginable. There are no benches anywhere so if you want to sit down and relax in this country you have to pay for a cup of coffee or tea. There is always a high demand for seats, compounded by many people who will spend close to 6 or 7 hours with one drink while they read a book or even sleep.

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Last time I went into a Pronto was somewhat uninspiring. Definitely lacks a kick back ambience. If they are trying to promote the opposite, I guess the word pronto fits.

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Last time I went into a Pronto was somewhat uninspiring.

This is like saying PM Hosokawa does not bear much resemblance to Michelangelo's "David."

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Is this the same Pronto that serves frozen parboiled pasta?

The consolation is, their coffee can't be any worse than their pasta.

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Pronto is not that good. It's like a McDonalds of coffee. Illy coffee is not that good either.

Look up the Japan Barista champions. Any one in the top 15 who works in a cafe will be a good bet.

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