Man cannot live by hamburgers alone. Well, Hirotsugu Hagiwara practically does. Tucked away in a side street in Sangenjaya, Setagaya Ward, is a delightful gourmet hamburger restaurant named Hara Kara where the amiable Hagiwara serves up healthy and filling gourmet burgers – and he eats them every day, himself.
Actually, Hagiwara – who is around 40 -- admits that he never had a hamburger until he was about 20. “I didn’t think they were very filling. I always preferred rice,” he recalls, sitting down in his restaurant. After studying service and hospitality at Toyo University and then Rikkyo University (and some part-time work at MOS Burger), Hagiwara says he felt like drifting. “It was the bubble economy and everyone was getting jobs, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. A travel agency offered me a job, but I decided to travel for a year to places like Okinawa. My friends were working for big name trading companies and banks, but they recommended that I stay away from those companies, so I applied for a job at McDonald’s.”
That was the Den Fujita era at McDonald’s when the legendary entrepreneur was taking the fast-food giant ahead in leaps and bounds. Hagiwara spent six years at McDonald’s, learning management at its hamburger university and working as a store manager at locations in Kawasaki and Yokohama, where he is from. After that, Hagiwara moved to Four Seeds where he spent eight years as a sales manager for the company’s Hawaiian burger outlet Kua Aina.
“By this time, I was ready to go out on my own and last May 14, I finally opened my own restaurant here,” he says. The name of the store – Hara Kara – is old Japanese which denotes eating and drinking camaraderie among family and friends. “The idea was to create a gourmet burger restaurant that was not Americanized like all the chains and other shops. This is a Japanese hamburger restaurant with traditional touches.”
Hara Kara’s burgers, which are charbroiled on a grill, are certainly tasty and filling. The avocado and pineapple burgers (950 yen and 1,050 yen) are popular with women, while salarymen go for the triple burgers (1,450 yen), says Hagiwara, The 152-gram patties are made from New Zealand premium beef. The menu includes such Japanese touches as Karuizawa pickles and "asari" (clam) chowder.
“Customers appreciate how healthy our burgers are. The fries are cooked in canola oil and I use mostly natural ingredients, no ketchup and just a bit of sauce. The burgers are low in calories and not greasy at all. I think this is one reason why we get a lot of older customers,” says Hagiwara, adding that he got the stamp of approval from his parents. “Of course, the burgers were a bit too big for them. I had to cut them in half,” he said.
While the prices may seem high – ranging from 850 yen to 1,450 yen – that is about par for the course for gourmet burgers in Tokyo. “Customers are mainly in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” says Hagiwara. “We especially get a lot of women and they are the key. These days, if a restaurant is not popular among women, it won’t do well. Foreign customers have started coming in, but not so many yet. Those who do come tend to return with friends. Up until now, I didn’t create an English menu because I didn’t want to make the atmosphere too Western. Rather, we prefer to talk to foreign customers and explain the items. However, I am now thinking about an English menu.”
Hagiwara, who lives above the restaurant, starts his day around 10 a.m. “Lunch is still the busiest time. Evenings tend to be a bit quiet,” he says. Since he is in the store every day, he eats burgers daily. “Naturally, I get a craving for other food and go out before we open or in between lunch and dinner. I wish I could find a good sushi restaurant in Sangenjaya,” he laments.
For research, he occasionally visits other gourmet burger restaurants to check out the opposition, and vice versa. “Someone from Baker Bounce came in for lunch today. We all know each other and I think it is important to know what the competition is doing. But I don’t go to McDonald’s or other chains. They are not our competitors.”
Hagiwara says he has not had to advertise yet; media come to him. Hara Kara has been featured in several Japanese magazines already. “I have a blog which is popular. Word of mouth is always the best advertising tool,” Hagiwara says. “It is just good to see customers come in and enjoy a burger that I made for them. That is the biggest pleasure for me.”
Sangenjaya 2-16-8, Setagaya Ward. Tel: 03-6323-1760. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and dinner from 6pm (last order 9:30 p.m.). Closed Monday nights, except holidays. Nearest station: Sangenjaya. Hagiwara’s blog (Japanese only) can be accessed at http://ameblo.jp/hagisann/© Japan Today