In Tokyo’s Roppongi district, you’ll find Two Dogs Taproom, an industrial-themed restaurant & bar with 25 craft beer taps and California style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven.
One of Roppongi’s most well-known hangouts for expats and Japanese alike, Two Dogs Taproom is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mike Verweyst, a long-time resident of Japan who first came to these shores in 1988.
Verweyst’s company, Two Dogs Holdings, has an exciting new project on tap, so to speak. The company has purchased 11,240 square meters of beachfront property on one of the most beautiful beaches in Shimoda, where it is planing to build a craft brewery.
Japan Today hears more from Verweyst about his early days in Japan during the bubble era, the cabaret and bar scene and his future plans.
Where are you from and what first brought you to Japan?
I was born in California and moved to Seattle when I was 11. I am a huge Seahawks Mariners fan. I first came to Japan in 1988, for a couple weeks to visit a friend. I immediately fell in love with Japan. I think the empathy of the Japanese people is what really made me feel at home. I do remember buying Japanese language study books the first day I arrived, so I must have had a feeling that I was going to stay for a while.
What was the club/cabaret scene in Tokyo like back then?
It was the bubble era, a crazy and wild time. The energy from the people was amazing. People were taking ¥900 taxi rides, and leaving ¥10,000 (keep the change). And every night was a Friday night.
The first job I worked in, was a Japanese hostess club in Roppongi called Watari Dako (Wandering Octopus). It was a very cool, and busy club with about 40 Japanese hostesses working daily. I did not really have much responsibility at that time, but I tried to learn the business as much as possible; especially the service side. I remember noting that the service was amazing, and could translate to any business.
As the company expanded with new shops, I was moved up the chain and given more responsibility, and a higher position every time. I remember working at clubs called Yamazaki Ro, named after the Japanese whiskey, and then at another club called Fujiyama International, which employed Japanese hostesses as well as foreigners.
In 1992, I was given an opportunity to manage the next new club. It was a big space, and I was told by my boss, that this location had never had a successful business. We opened the first amusement casino with actual professional dealers, and a large cabaret show, so I decided on the name, “One Eyed Jack,” after the popular TV show “Twin Peaks,” which had a fictional casino and brothel with the same name.
What sort of people showed up?
One Eyed Jack became the go-to club for all the Hollywood celebrities and global sports stars visiting Japan — Sylvester Stallone, Christina Aguilera, Will Smith and his wife, Billy Zane, Britney Spears, Magic Johnson just to name a few. One busy Friday, Mickey Rourke came in. He absolutely loved the club; there was nothing like it in all the world. Mickey had such a good time, that he wanted to pay the bills for every guest in the house. We tried to talk him out of it, as it would have been an enormous bill. He was not inebriated though, and insisted, and slapped his credit card down. I don’t recall exactly how much his bill was, but it was over ¥2 million.
How did you come up with the idea to open Seventh Heaven?
One day a guy walked into One Eyed Jack, with just a photo book. In the book, he had photos of high-end exotic dancers. He asked if we needed these kinds of girls. I had recently watched a “60 Minutes” documentary where the Chicago gentlemen’s clubs were having gang wars, trying to control the exotic dancers, and keep them from working at competitor clubs. They were going as far as kidnapping club managers and driving them around in a car trunk for 24 hours.
I asked him how many dancers he had, and would he be open to starting a new club, specifically for his girls. To which he said he had 30 pro dancers now, but had access to more, and if the club was a success, he could recruit more from the top cities in the U.S.
How did everything go?
Seventh Heaven was a smashing success, and we were soon applying for visas for talent from the top clubs in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and LA.
Seventh Heaven was so busy, and the girls were making so much money that they refused to work anymore after 11 p.m. Girls had their bags in their hands, and they carried it like a football. “Go on stage now!” we used to tell them. “I have three grand in my bag right now, and I’m not going anywhere,” they would answer. It was a very good problem to have, so we did what anyone else would do, and we installed 40 safes in the girls changing room, where only they had the key.
What came next for you?
I later opened one of the first good sports bars in Tokyo, called Tokyo Sports Café.
In 2013, you opened Two Dogs Taproom. How did that come about?
I took time off from work, to concentrate on starting Two Dogs Taproom. It’s very difficult to get a good location. Most of the time, a great location will never hit the market, but instead it gets handed down to a friend or colleague. When our current site became available, I knew I didn’t have much time. I wrote a rental application immediately, and began the application process. Basically you need to convince the landlord that you know what you’re doing, and won’t be a detriment. Renting a location as a foreigner is not impossible, but they always make you jump through one extra hoop. In this case, I needed to provide an extra month of key money. I remember Hooters coming in late, and trying to acquire the location, but I ended up getting it.
Were you confident it would be successful, considering it was only five years after the Lehman Shock which saw many restaurants and bars go out of business as expats left Japan.
I’m never confident in a new business. I am always trying to look at the weak points (and strong points), to build on them. It helps to remember that none of us has a magic ability to make a business great. I try to work hard and smart, and put in the hours. Not too hard though; customers can feel your stress. Steady as a ship: Don’t get too low, when it’s bad, and don’t get too high, when it’s good.
How did the pandemic affect business at Two Dogs?
The pandemic was rough on a lot of businesses, some more than others. We all needed to adapt fast. There was no way to fight through the bad times; you just needed to roll with the punches. So we did what everyone else did, and took out a bank loan. But company loans in Japan need to be backed with assets, like the company president’s house. There was risk, but I felt it was worth risking. At that time, there was not much government support. I think they had a general allowance for each shop of like ¥300,000 a month, no matter the business size or location. Our loan capital was going fast. But they had just started to subsidize businesses according to the taxes they filed in 2019. From that point on, we were able to stay afloat.
Tell us about your newest project, the brewery in Shimoda.
I have been dreaming of opening a brewery since I opened Two Dogs Taproom. We originally tried to do a small beer system inside of Two Dogs Taproom. I ordered a small custom brewing system, with a 7-month lead time. But our customers started booking the brewing room for private events, and it soon became clear that, we would lose more than we would gain, by brewing on premises in Roppongi.
One thing I was able to do was get a grant from the government for the brewery. During COVID, I tried to think how we could turn this negative period into something positive. I started checking into the support for new and existing businesses and we were able to get a ¥30 million grant for the brewery.
There were a few new problems that COVID created in its aftermath. Building costs skyrocketed from ¥44 million to over ¥90 million due to inflation, steel prices, China’s lockdown, etc. Fortunately, we found a new location in an old building, just 300 meters from Shimoda Station, where we are now planning to build the brewery.
Why did you choose Shimoda?
There are a lot of benefits to opening a brewery outside of Tokyo. Rent alone can take all your profits. I initially looked for tourism areas with lots of travelers, where we could own the land and the building. Shimoda is a beautiful area and has an interesting history, being the location where Mathew Perry landed with his Black Ships, forcing open international trade with Japan. The Black Ships are ubiquitous, and celebrated all over the area. It is going to make for some very cool marketing opportunities. It also has lots of onsen water access, which we are looking forward to using to create a line of black beers. The Black Ship beer lines are something that can set us apart from other breweries, and make us easy to remember.
What are your distribution and retail plans? Do you plan to open taprooms in various cities?
I have partnered up with Tokyo’s elite craft beer retailers and distributors. That allows us access to multiple shops for direct sales immediately after opening. I also plan to be working on developing our own distribution chain, during the brewery construction. With a little luck, we can hit the ground running, and open new shops as soon as we find good locations.
What do you think of the craft beer industry in Japan?
I love how far the craft beer industry has come in the last 15 years. There are a lot of people making some great beer in Japan, and a lot that are struggling with consistency. In the worst cases, you sometimes get a keg that pours like mud due to the yeast. Brewers in Japan also tend to stay on the conservative side. But I think for the most part, Japan makes great beer.
Twenty years ago, I ordered a pallet of 100 cases of bottled craft beer. At that time, the large breweries held the import licenses, and no one would bring the beer into Japan from the port. Eventually, after about three weeks, Kirin Brewery Company finally agreed, provided I sign a waiver stating that it was a one-time only import.
What is a typical day for you? Do you go back and forth between Shimoda and Tokyo?
I am back and forth, often. It’s a three-hour trip from Tokyo, but the Shimoda area is so beautiful though, I always feel great when I arrive.
Are you at Two Dogs most nights?
I am at Two Dogs full-time, when not working on the brewery planning.
When you’re not working, how do you like to relax?
Other than enjoy a great craft beer, I like to bike, play chess, watch movies, and I’m an avid Seattle area sports podcasts watcher.© Japan Today