Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
Japanese tea shop/cafe (Kichijoji, Tokyo)
There is a very unique Japanese tea shop in Kichijoji, one of the most popular places among young people in Tokyo. It sells “flavored tea” such as orange flavor, chocolate-mint flavor, natsumikan (lit.”summer tangerine”) flavor and baked apple flavor.
The storekeeper, Stephane Danton, is a French man. Green tea is a typical part of traditional Japanese culture and people feel there are high walls between foreigners and Japanese traditional culture. But he got over the walls.
He created a healing place which is full of young people and women everyday. This relaxing place represents his adversarial quality.
(Interview with Stephane Danton, shop owner)
When did you open this shop?
I opened this shop in 2005.
I came to Japan 17 years ago and I worked at several places. When I worked at a French tea shop, I met a person who knew a lot of people in the bridal field. He took me to many wedding centers and golf courses and I provided training for people in the service industry.
One day I thought “I worked a lot enough to return his kindness.” and I wanted to launch my own business. I had experienced a lot and made many contacts. So I opened this shop.
Why did you choose Japanese tea?
Originally I was a sommelier in France so I wanted to engage in wine when I came here. But I didn’t know any person of the Japan Sommelier Association so I had no job.
Then I found a French tea shop in Tokyo. I thought wine and tea are similar. I started working there but I wondered why they didn’t sell Japanese tea. Actually European people don’t know very much about Japanese tea. But I thought, “Why don’t I get interested in Japanese tea? I’m in Japan now.” So I started learning about it.
Many Japanese are interested in wine. If they don’t look at a beautiful treasure in front of them, I do. So I, a French guy, get in Japanese tea.
Japanese tea is popular among some Europeans. They drink it but if I ask them, “You feel it’s good?” they say, “So-so.” “Drink more?” and they will say, “No, thank you.” That means Japanese tea is not in demand in Europe. People who love Japanese culture drink it a lot but they are still minority there.
So I came up with an idea. I conform Japanese tea to European’s cup of tea. They would feel it tastes good and they would say, “I want to try real Japanese tea”. Then I serve them sencha. I mean ABCs are essential for everything. This shop introduces the ABCs of Japanese tea.
Also European use essence when they enhance flavor. On the other hand, Japanese use aroma like an incense stick. We use essence, not aroma. We are familiar with essence so I season orange, chocolate-mint, whatever and blend tea. People say, “It’s plain but good!””It’s refreshing!” then I talk about tea itself. If they say, “I want to have a real one.”, then I can sell full-blown Japanese tea.
What I’m doing is just a way to introduce Japanese tea for Europeans. That’s what I want to do here.
I think you can do that because you looked at Japanese culture from a different angle.
That’s right. People in the agricultural industry in Japan or JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives or Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives) receive subsidies from the government. Even if those kind of people say to me, “You don’t know about Japanese tea at all.”, I don’t care.
Our tea was chosen as an article at the Expo Zaragoza 2008. That’s my proven track record. JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) don’t want to show sencha at the exhibition. I also want people to have our mizudashitea (tea which is made with cold water). So I put Valencia orange flavor in Japanese tea, it represents a Japan-Spain friendship.
JETRO chose our flavor tea as an article at the exhibition. METI knows that we shouldn’t do what we’ve done to transmit the appeal of Japanese tea to the world. They think so because they know about international trends.
But people who don’t know that are proud of their history. “We’ve been cultivating tea for 400 years.” “We’ve been doing it for many generations. How about you?” But you are low-potential, aren’t you? If they say, “Even if we have no future, we don’t care. Because we receive a lot of subsidies from our government.” So they can have luxury cars. That’s ridiculous.
When I opened this shop, I was not going to compete with other tea shops. So they are not competitors for me. Even if they think I am an ankle-biter for them, I don’t care. I am not planning to be like that. I just want this shop to appeal to the people, especially young people who are not interested in Japanese tea.
I named this shop “Ocharaka” (“Ocha” means “tea” in Japanese) after a Japanese children’s song (“Ocharaka-hoi”). That represents a kind of our playful mind. Also the word “Ocharaka” sounds friendly for European people.
Why I chose Kichijoji when I founded this shop is that I wanted Japanese tea to appeal to young people. I saw many of them getting beverages from vending machines. I don’t like that because vending machines don’t need any kind of communication. I don’t want them to buy something without thinking because they are not tasty.
Our mizudashi tea is made from tea leaves and cold water. That’s it. So it’s kept only for two days because it’s perishable. On the other hand, bottles of tea from vending machines are available anytime and tasty… It’s unnatural. If you keep drinking artificial tea you get at vending machines, it would damage your health in the meantime.
So we make products which stick out in people’s minds. We want to set off a trend of buying something with attachment, it means we have to be thoughtful about our choice of food and beverages.
Ocharaka is only here, not in other places. No branch shop. After the Zaragoza Expo in 2008, if someone suggests me upgrading the shop’s management scale, I’ll say no. We don’t make a sale in supermarkets and department stores. That’s my style.
But instead of that, we provided our products to the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan. We showed our concept to French people. Then we prepared to franchise our products in Europe, not in Japan.
I like to push along by inches and make good products. Even if I can’t raise money in Japan, it’s not a big deal because I get money in Europe. Because we franchise our products there. European people think about business differently. They don’t like to commercialize. They think a great deal about their business philosophy.
Our shop is small. That’s an advantage. Big companies lack flexibility because they have many departments like a marketing department and development department. They are compartmentalized and there is at least one person who thinks that you will go wrong if you challenge something in every department. Then a project will be aborted.
On the other hand, I’m really flexible. If a big beverage company makes a citrus flavor tea and it won a big market, I will stop selling our citrus flavor one. That kind of flexibility is our advantage.
We will start catering our tea for every French ambassador from this April or May (2008). That became possible because I’ve built friendships with them since I came here.
For example, There are many brand-name stores along Omote-sando Avenue in Tokyo, such as Chanel, Louis Vitton and Hermes. Those stores have big events when they introduce their latest collections. At those events, mainly champagne is offered and people enjoy fashion shows with glasses of champagne in their hands. But recently the number of people who don’t drink is increasing. So I will offer our mizudashi tea to people at event venues. It’s not a troublesome task. Also it’s cheap.
In return, I actually asked them to put a name of “Ocharaka” on their booklets. They said yes and we’re perfectly ready to export our tea to France. That’s our way of preparing for our future.
But you could attain those things in only three years.
Well, ask our staff members. They will say it will take at least three years to get your business on track. There are many articles about our shop in many magazines. I didn’t ask publishers or writers to carry stories about us at all. We don’t put out any news release. But press people come to this shop if we have news hook because they always look for stories.
Sometimes French guys have parties here and also many people have various events here. That means we create a community with them. So people come here even if it’s raining because they also want to join our community. That’s important. You shouldn’t wait for people to come. You have to gather people. Then they bring their friends here. It’s like a snowball. That’s our business style.
When we opened this shop, it took some time to turn upward. It was a tough time for me. But people got to know about us little by little. Many people flocked here even if we didn’t advertise very much. People came to Kichijoji which is located in a suburb of Tokyo. Moreover, this shop is kind of far from the station. But they walk here. We should be worth it.
You don’t target only young people all along.
Exactly. I don’t target only one kind of people but am open to any group, be they young people, old people or foreigners or others. That’s my marketing strategy and we became successful. If we target only woman in their thirties, we preclude our possibility by ourselves.
What do you want this shop to be?
Consistency is important. If you make your own shops or stores brand-name, you shouldn’t estimate your performances. Your customers do that. In order to set a proper value upon your business, you never change.
Chanel, Louis Vitton and Hermes have never changed their style and philosophy. They are not dependent on their customers’ taste or seasons. If they were swayed, they couldn’t be a brand-name. You have to go there to get what you want. “That store is very small! Also I have to wait for a long time to get it. But I can’t complain.” If people think like that, you can do your own business with much confidence. Then sales turn upward… That’s how to create a brand. If you put one million dollars into this store, two million dollars in that store, 30 million yen in another store… yeah, you might be able to establish your brand. But I think it won’t be a brand-name for a long time. I want to lay down a firm foundation stone.
Our shop will post strong sales. But even if our effort produces berries, we shouldn’t eat them. We have to resist the temptation to have them. That’s my way and I tell our staff to do so. We have to do so at least for three years. Then we will accomplish our goal and people will understand our philosophy.
*Photos by Mariko Kodaira
What is Japanese tea for you?
I love tea as much as wine.
Every time a customer comes, I show him/her tea leaves. It’s like wine tasting.
I make them feel something about tea with their eyes, nose and taste. “Wow, beautiful!” “Good aroma!” “Refreshing!” If they mention those words, our products become competitive.
If they say words like “It reminds me of my good old days.” or “It’s groundbreaking!”, those become our edges. Then we make this shop a brand-name with our customers.
We hear how they like it and we try to cater to everyone with thankfulness. Then we can create something new. I want to do these things with Japanese tea because I love it.
I’ll be a front runner. Competitors won’t be able to catch me. If they almost catch me, I’ll go further.
3-3-11 Kichijoji-honcho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo
Phone: (from overseas) +81-422-23-0751
(from other areas in Japan) 0422-23-0751
FAX: (from overseas) +81-422-23-0752
(from other areas in Japan) 0422-23-0752
*Interview with Stephane Danton…Click here!