Founding A Bar & Restaurant Business In Fukuoka - Focus On Fukuoka #2 [Market Brew]

Why is Fukuoka a great place to open a bar and what does it take to win over the locals?

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Happy Thursday Market Brewsters. Today we’re continuing from where we left off last week and exploring the exciting food and beverage opportunities in Fukuoka.

Fukuoka is well known for having an energizing and lively nightlife. We spoke to Luis Matos, a food and beverage hospitality professional who manages a portfolio of local bars and restaurants which he founded himself. Luis tells us:

  • All about Fukuoka’s buzzing bar scene,

  • What we can learn from Costco about winning over Japanese consumers, and

  • Why Fukuoka is a great place to grow as a business.

Fukuoka’s Energetic Bar Scene

Fukuoka has a fantastic bar scene. People love exploring new drinks and bar foods.

Luis Matos set up shop in Fukuoka 30 years ago. His American bar, Off-Broadway opened in the heart of the city which also happens to be minutes away from the bay. At the time, Fukuoka was thriving, high on the energy of bubble-era Japan. A growing foreign community, residents with experience living abroad, and an affluent population in search of new experiences meant Fukuoka was crying out for international bars and restaurants. 

Even after the bubble burst, Fukuoka has continued to thrive. Luis now owns a portfolio of bars in the city. He credits his success to Fukuoka’s openness.

Fukuoka moves a million miles an hour in slow motion. When you’re here, it feels laid back - you can enjoy life at a comfortable pace. But the moment you leave and come back, even just for a month, you’re struck by how much it’s changed. Like a river, you never step into the same spot twice.

Fukuoka’s people are the same. Laid-back and open - unafraid of being challenged by new things, they are happy to change. This makes the city a great place to experiment and get willing feedback on new ideas.

The nightlife is a reflection of the city’s character. Every type of European restaurant can be found next to traditional Japanese izakaya or yatai (roadside eating stalls), which are a few meters away from cocktail bars or lively pubs. Fukuoka, like Tokyo, has a very diverse nightlife that leads people to try new things.

But is Fukuoka’s penchant for a night out enough to make your bar or restaurant venture an instant success?

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A lot of opportunities or not, adapting your products to the Japanese context is still key

In Luis’ experience, it’s context as much as the product that is key to convincing Japanese consumers to eat and drink something new. 

There’s a misconception that Japan doesn’t change. You just have to understand how to change things here. You have to understand that for the Japanese, the situation in which food and drink is consumed is as important as the food itself. The way you introduce something new must be through the Japanese context.

For example, 30 years ago, no one knew what hot wings were in Fukuoka. I served them in Off-Broadway, as a traditional New York bar food, in the traditional New York style - spicy! Japanese customers couldn’t eat them because they were too hot. The Japanese palate wasn’t accustiomed to spicy food back then. So I made a mild one and people loved them. Now though, the Japanese customers can’t get enough of the hot ones. This only happened because I adapted my “new” dish to the Japanese context, and in return they became open to doing things in a new way.

Luis points to Costco as a big name that started out in Fukuoka and got its strategy just right.

Costco tested the Japanese market by opening its first branch near Fukuoka in 1999. One and half years later they opened their next outlet in Chiba. Their focus on engaging consumers in a Japanese context is one of the reasons they succeeded, says Luis.

I remember I attended the local international school festival at the end of the 90s and who was there? Costco! The retail giant had set up a small hot dog stand. They were engaging with the community, in local activities, making themselves part of it. What’s more, it was a smart move because a big market for Costco in Japan is moms. The school festival is the perfect place to reach that demographic.

Their wilingness to engage in the Japanese context is why their Fukuoka business is still booming today. It’s also why they’ve expanded across the country, and Japanese kitchen cupboards are now full of blueberry muffins.

The consumer base in Fukuoka may be open to new things, but you still need to know the ins and outs of marketing your product in Japan to be successful here, like anywhere else in the country. Fukuoka, then, is a great city to learn the ropes of the Japanese market. All without the price tag of Japan’s bigger cities.

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Fukuoka is THE place to grow

Luis explains that the fruitful opportunities in food and beverage in Fukuoka are aided by Kyushu’s abundant natural resources.

Fukuoka City is a marine city - it has great access to a lot of fresh fish. The prefecture also has fertile soils that are perfect for growing ingredients. There’s an area close to Fukuoka City called Itoshima which has developed in the past 30 years into a sprawling, lush farmland. As a restaurant or business It’s an ideal place to get your produce.

As well as cultivating ingredients, Fukuoka also makes a fine place to cultivate the growth of your business. Especially internationally.

Fukuoka is on the doorstep of Asia. South Korea is practically within walking distance. This city is great base to expand from.

The city just across from Fukuoka in South Korea is called Busan. I went there a few years ago and found a thriving city. World-class beaches. A growing metropolis. It has a lot in common with Fukuoka.

Speaking to Luis makes it clear that Fukuoka is a supportive environment to figure out the Japanese market. It has open-minded consumers, plenty of resources and low costs. But the city is also a springboard to expand further, domestically - like Costco did, and internationally.

Our final question to Luis. Would he consider taking Off-Broadway abroad?

Definitely, Busan is a city where Off-Broadway would rock!

That’s all folks

We hope you enjoyed reading today’s article and hearing the voice of our local restaurant and hospitality expert. A huge thank you to Luis Matos for taking the time to interview us and support this article.

To find out more about taking your business overseas from Fukuoka, we spoke to a local health food company. Discover their invigorating insights in next week’s article!

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