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