“This is my hobby. That’s why I’ve been in this business for 15 years and yet I never get tired of what I do.” This is how enthusiastically Norihiko Takemura, president of Pronto Corporation, speaks about his business of running the coffee shop chain.
However, Takemura is quick to point out that Pronto (“We are ready” in Italian) is not only a coffee shop, “it’s an Italian bar.” The connotation of Italian bar has evolved to more of an Enoteca-type all day dining. Pronto serves breakfast (a set of toast, salad, egg and coffee for ¥390), pasta for lunch (from ¥590), sweets for afternoon tea and apperitivos for bar time. Happy Hour drinks are served at a low price from a minimum ¥290. At 5:30 p.m., venues dim their lights for the changeover from self-service to full-service.
“Suntory owns 65% of our shares and UCC has 35%, so we have to sell both coffee and beer,” Takemura explains at his company’s head office in Shinagawa.
Pronto is famous for its reasonable and tasteful pasta. Late lunchers appreciate them too because they serve pasta all day. Focused in major urban regions, there are 247 Prontos across Japan, and the company is now spreading in Asia with stores in Shanghai and Singapore. Most stores are located in busy office districts. Lunch times are mainly occupied by women in their 30s and the mornings can get packed with businessmen in their 30s-40s, according to company data.
“We don’t advertise ourselves as a pasta restaurant, so we don’t boast about it but Pronto sells the second most pasta dishes in Japan. That’s about 650,000 pasta dishes sold each month,” says Takemura with a grin.
Pronto Corporation was established in 1988. It has over 300 employees at its head office and also operates various franchise establishments under the Pronto brand, which is scarcely known. These establishments include Il Bar - a smaller scale all-day dining serving jugs of alcohol at bar time; Caffé Solare - a cafe with health-oriented menu and family friendly concept famous for its salad bowl with rice; E Pronto - a relaxing atmosphere for everyone and self-service mostly in suburban areas; egg - an all-day breakfast restaurant established in Brooklyn in 2005; Di Punto - a wine bar with a reasonable plate of prosciutto and a bottle of Lambrusco (Italian sparkling wine); Espressamente illy cafe - famous Italian social space featuring authentic Italian food and dolce coupled with high-quality coffee made by master baristas; Brioche Doreé - a leading French-style bakery cafe that has over 460 stores around the world; and Tsumugi - a Japanese style cafe on the grounds of Tsukiji Honganji Temple, providing special breakfast menu and Japanese sweets.
Born in Nara Prefecture, Takemura says he gained his management skills from watching his parents operate their clothes store. “I grew up watching customers coming in to check out the fabrics downstairs and ladies working in the factory just above the store,” he recalls. “I always knew what was going to be the trend six months later, by seeing what kind of fabric the salesperson brought in.”
Always being able to look ahead for the next trend is vital to Takemura who visits about 500 restaurants a year, not only in Japan but overseas. If he’s informed about a must-see restaurant, he will go straight away, adding, “I don’t like not knowing something.”
With his “antenna” on the alert, Takemura is always chasing after new products and ideas and is happy when he becomes the trend setter. For example, when tapioca was popular overseas, he brought it to Japan and started selling a tapioca drink at Pronto where the grand menu changes every three months depending on trends and seasonal ingredients.
“Here try these,” Takemura says as he served me several chocolate-looking treats. “They’re not chocolates, but are pure coffee beans frozen at -196 degrees Celsius and crushed into their shape.” Apparently, eight of them are equivalent to a cup of coffee. With the help of Suntory’s leading technology, the potent scent of coffee was superb and the sense of chewing on caffeine was a first-time experience. They are sold at only 70 Pronto stores now, but Takemura is rethinking package design and aiming to promote them on a massive scale.
Before I’ve had a chance to finish the chocolates, Takemura asks an employee to bring some cups to try his new natural water from maple trees called, Asarasi, which he plans to import and market in Japan. To my surprise, I was able to taste a hint of sweetness in the clear water.
As for the tea Pronto serves, Takemura visited tea farms 2,000 meters above sea level in Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri. For coffee beans, he trekked through the mountains of Guatemala and El Salvador.
“Oh by the way,” Takemura adds, casually drifting from one topic to another. “On my way back from Guatemala, I stopped by Brooklyn in New York to get a few souvenirs for my wife. I saw a restaurant that was completely packed at 10:30 in the morning, so I went in and I was struck by their food.”
After returning to Tokyo, Takemura made several Skype conference calls with the manager of that New York restaurant and the result was the opening of their second store in the world in Japan. Its name: egg - all-day breakfast dining. Their first one was in Ikebukuro and another opened in Setagaya, which is just next to Baji Koen Park. It’s an upscale venue on the first floor of Food and Agriculture Museum designed by the award-winning architect Kengo Kuma.
Tsumugi is another interesting Pronto restaurant, located inside the grounds of Tsukiji Hoganji Temple in Tokyo. The concept of this cafe, Takemura says, is for three generations to enjoy. Tsumugi is one of my personal favorite breakfast cafes with an extraordinary view of the temple and an Instagramable platter of a dozen or more colorful small bites, each served on a beautiful Japanese ceramic plate, along with a bowl of rice and miso soup.
“We have the ingredients, we have the know-how, information and training systems in place, so all we have to do is change the uniforms and store atmosphere for each brand.”
It might seem like a challenge for one company to operate so many different brands but they can do this because they have the infrastructure, with Pronto as the “mother ship.”
“We have the ingredients, we have the know-how, information and training systems in place, so all we have to do is change the uniforms and store atmosphere for each brand,” Takemura says.
The changeover to bar in the evenings is a big advantage for Pronto. ”Competitive franchises like Doutor and Starbucks are open at night, too, but people consider them ‘coffee shops.’ Some people work with their laptops while sipping coffee but those customers feel uncomfortable if there is a group of people at the next table drinking beer and having a great time.. So that’s why it’s important to change the ordering system and completely alter the atmosphere."
As for the decor, the trend is bench or high chairs and tables made of wood.
“I’ve learned that the younger generation tend to swarm into restaurants where you can sit on hard wooden chairs. I personally would prefer comfortable sofas to enjoy a glass of wine, but this seems to be old-fashioned thinking.”
Takemura believes the key to long-term success is the cleanliness of stores and the smiles of their staff.
“Long-standing shops are successful because of the so-called meticulous mother-in-law on site. Let me explain. Managers can teach staff to clean and wipe a table by drawing a square, rather than a circle. On the other hand, a mother-in-law would check to see if the sides of the table have also been wiped clean. Therefore, stores where the managers don’t make an effort into teaching younger staff these important details will not stand long. Education is the key to running a restaurant business.”
To keep an eye on things, Takemura occasionally visits his stores — “in disguise,” he admits. “Occasionally the manager may recognize me but part-timers don’t. I wouldn’t go for private occasions because that becomes work for me, but I often go by myself to understand what is going on. And when I go, there are usually about 30 complaints on my list for each location.”
Foreign visitors to Pronto stores may notice a difference in the coffee culture in Japan. “Unlike in the West, Japanese people, especially in big cities, don’t invite friends over to their homes for a coffee because they don’t have big living rooms. So they use the cafes as their living room. This is why the coffee shop culture will never disappear. You can go to a family restaurant too, but coffee shops like Pronto are more stylish.”
Takemura said Pronto is considering vegetarian and Halal menu items, but “it’s difficult because even the dressings include animal fat.”
Smoking will be banned in all restaurants in Tokyo from the spring of 2020. Some Pronto locations are being renovated to build segregated smoking booths, which will be allowed. Profits of Pronto stores where smoking has already been abolished have decreased 30%, but Takemura thinks smokers will come back as long as they know there is a booth to smoke. Even though Takemura quit smoking, he says, “It’s a bit of a shame because coffee and cigarettes go so well together.”
Pronto is also eco-conscious, by contributing to sustainable development through an environmental protection project called P Love Green. Ten yen of the price for menu items with a “P ‘heart’ Green mark”, goes straight to the project. Pronto’s P is for people, partner and peace. Green is friendly to people and the environment. The P Love Green menu is made from local ingredients. Donations total about one million yen per month, Takemura says.
“We also make building blocks from scrap wood and donate them to schools in disaster-stricken areas. When there’s a disaster, Pronto employees go to those areas as volunteer workers.”
Pronto employs non-Japanese at its head office, including staff from Italy, Mongolia, South Korea, China and Taiwan, but most of the part-time store staff are Japanese.
Looking ahead, Takemura has some ideas for entertainment. He and a friend came up with an idea to present a theater performance in the morning. “It will run for a month twice a year, and we’re planing to charge ¥1,000 for a seat, including breakfast.” He wants businessmen in the office districts to watch comedy skits to cheer them up to start off their work day.
At Pronto near Kanda Station, which is closed on Sundays, he is planning on offering shogi (Japanese chess) lessons for children. Shogi students need a venue for weekly matches and lessons so it will be a win-win situation, he thinks. “It’s a perfect venue where parents can wait while drinking coffee downstairs.”
Speaking of drinking coffee, how much does Takemura drink? “About five cups of coffee a day and two to three cups of tea. I don’t drink Coca-Cola or soft drinks like that.”
For more information, visit https://www.pronto.co.jp/© Japan Today