Interview by Isao Tokuhashi and Jennifer A. Hoff
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
When we at My Eyes Tokyo (MET) planned to travel to Canada this year (2023), Jennifer, MET’s English editor-in-chief who is a native Vancouverite, told us about a hot dog chain that she had been familiar with for many years — “JAPADOG“, a Japanese-style hotdog restaurant that operates both in Vancouver and in the United States. It has been featured in numerous media outlets for its uniqueness and has become so integrated into the everyday lives of the locals that all of Jennifer’s family and friends know of it.
As the day of our departure approached, we began to think that not only did we want to experience the diversity within Canada, we also wanted to interview Japanese people who are active in the region. The first person who came to mind was Noriki Tamura, the CEO of Japadog. Although Tamura was busy with the opening of a new store in Eastern Canada, he graciously accepted our offer for an interview.
The day came when we met Tamura in Vancouver, who was slightly burnt from the sun due to his active lifestyle and love of sports, and held himself with a friendly smile and in a humble attitude. He may seem like a “typical Japanese” person on the outside, but his exterior hides a man of energy and bold ideas.
*Interview held in Vancouver
Visiting the JAPADOG store in Downtown Vancouver!
A drive-through food truck near where we were staying (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada)
The Japanese word “いただきます” (Itadakimasu, meaning “Let’s eat!”) written on the tables near the truck.
Kurobuta Terimayo, the most popular among all customers (left); Oroshi, the most popular among Japanese customers (right)
Act first, think later
Since it started with just one stall in 2005, JAPADOG has expanded to 11 locations (*as of August 2023) with ten in Vancouver, Canada and one in Los Angeles. Of these, four are storefront locations and the remaining seven are mobile stalls and trucks. After sales grew in Canada, the company fulfilled a longtime dream of opening a storefront in New York, but unfortunately they ended up having to withdraw from there. However, sales in Los Angeles, where the company later expanded, have been extremely strong, and its lineup of guacamole dogs and nachos is popular, particularly among its Latin American clientele.
“I never imagined that I would come to Canada when I was young. It was really by chance that I came to this country. And here, I literally started from ‘zero’. I had zero English skills and zero business ideas, and I didn’t even eat hot dogs very much when I was in Japan. I like to eat, but I don’t think of myself as a good cook. And I still don’t consider myself a ‘successful’ person. If I were asked to give a message to young people who want to try something, I would say, ‘Ask someone else who is more successful’ (laughs). I am not being modest. I truly believe that.” Tamura says.
“Because I think I am still far from realizing my dreams. Also, I am not good at thinking (laughs), so I tend to just give something a try first. My life so far seems to have been a continued repetition of acting before thinking.”
A burned-out ballplayer saved by the grill
“I was originally a baseball fanatic as a boy, born in Oyama, one of the major cities in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. I played day and night, working hard at baseball since I was a child, because I was aspiring to become a professional. Come to think of it, in North America, people watch baseball games while eating hotdogs. In that respect, it may have been faintly connected to my current job (laughs). After graduating from high school in Ibaraki Prefecture, next to Tochigi, I entered Aoyama Gakuin University—through an entrance exam, not because of my baseball ability—and joined its baseball team.
“However, I was forced to leave the team in my second year of college due to injuries. My father ran a small real estate agency in my hometown, but I never thought about taking over my father’s business and I was just so passionate about baseball that I lost sight of my goals and suffered from burnout. In order to escape from that situation, I desperately searched for a future path while working part-time at a golf course among other places.
“Around that time, I saw an advertisement for a lecture. I had no idea what the background of the speaker was, but I attended the venue in Tokyo with the impression that he was a great businessman. Afterward, I read his book, which was on sale there, and that was the first time I found out who he was.
“The man was Richard Branson, the head of the Virgin Group, the British conglomerate.
“After giving up on baseball, I had been desperately looking for an exciting alternative to it. Then I looked up and held on to the idea of Branson and thought, ‘This is it!’ That was my first step toward starting my own business.”
Part-time jobs while being president
“In order to learn how society works before starting my own business, I joined a foreign medical company after graduating from university. At the Japanese subsidiary of a world-renowned company, I sold hospitals surgical thread and needles. However, I left the company only six months after joining because I still wanted to do business on my own. I returned to my hometown and started a computer school and an advertising company for ‘i-mode’, a Japanese mobile internet service that was popular in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“Finally I started my own business—it sounds cool, but the truth is that I was unable to make a profit, even with the help of the woman who would later become my wife, and I had to work part-time to make ends meet. After about three years of this situation, I got interested in making a magazine that is big and tangible, instead of making ad content fit for the small screen of a cell phone. My idea was completely opposite to what’s around in today’s online media-driven world (laughs). In order to create a magazine that would introduce cool people who are pursuing their dreams, my wife joined an editors’ group and I joined a trade newspaper company to learn to edit magazines and write articles. Eventually, I realized that I needed to learn advertising sales, so I joined Recruit, a Japanese media company that publishes classified ad magazines which cover many fields.
“The atmosphere of the company suited me, and moreover it was interesting to work there, so I worked like crazy. However, about three years after joining them, when I was approaching my last year in my 20s, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ‘What do I really want to do?’
“Then I remembered—when I was a senior in college, I traveled around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York and decided that one day I would set up my own business in the US. In addition to that, when I had visited New York on a prenuptial trip with my wife in my late 20s, that original intention became even stronger.
“‘It’s time to go to the US!’ I thought. But at the time there were high hurdles to overcome to obtain a visa in order to start my business there. When I felt that my dream was getting further away from becoming a reality, I suddenly came up with another idea: ‘What about Canada, another North American country?'”
Crossing the ocean with no plan
Canada, like Australia, is a country where you can get a working holiday visa, which allows you to work anywhere.
“…Which means you can start a business on a working holiday visa?”
“With this in mind, my wife and I flew to Canada in 2005. We decided to settle in Vancouver, where the climate is relatively mild, after touring around the country with excursion tickets.
But I had not decided what I would do here at all.
On the other hand, before I left Japan, I had trained at a shop to make melon bread (“melon-pan”), which was popular there at the time, and sushi, a Japanese dish popular overseas. Then I heard from a friend of mine living in New York that Japanese-style crêpes were not available in the city, and the idea of opening a crêpe stall in Canada, also in North America, also came to me.
To explore the possibility of realizing this goal, I started visiting food stalls downtown the day after my arrival in Vancouver and talking to the store owners. Those were coincidentally hotdog stalls. However, the food items that were able to be sold at food stalls were limited to coffee, nuts, and hotdogs in the city.
“What should I do?” I thought to myself. My English skills were at almost zero and I had no particular talents, so there was no other way for me to survive in Canada. Giving up the idea of opening a food stall meant “going back to Japan”, which was not exactly what I had in mind.
After much thought and consideration, I decided to open a food stall with hotdogs here. I participated in the Vancouver city government’s lottery for the location of the opening, which I heard about from a hotdog vendor who I had befriended. I was assigned to the intersection of Burrard and Smithe in Downtown. This was where many hotdog stalls were competing with each other.”
No orders, but no other way
“’If we just sold regular hotdogs, our shop would be buried,’ I thought. So my wife and I decided to compete with other restaurants by offering our hot dogs with Japanese flavors, and we opened up ‘JAPADOG’ in 2005. We started to develop a menu, but we knew that if we tried to make every single item Japanese-style, it would not sell well, so we decided to offer only two Japanese-style hotdogs out of the eight items on the menu at the time: Terimayo and Kushiyaki (Hotdog with vegetables and sausage skewered and placed on a bun). However, at first we didn’t receive any orders at all for the Japanese ones, especially for the Kushiyaki. No one bought it (laughs). We felt that we had no choice but to move forward, so we continued our business steadily, eating our own hotdogs to make ends meet, day after day, when sales were slow. Through repeated trial and error, our meals gradually began to become a hot topic amongst first the Asian community.
“On the other hand, Japanese toppings such as seaweed and dried bonito flakes were at first shunned by many non-Asian Canadians due to the lack of familiarity. However, we eventually got the Japanese-style hotdogs to become popular among all types of Canadians after we had a lot of discussion about the presentation and menu with young local university students we’d hired as part-timers.
Okonomi, an okonomiyaki-like hotdog covered with a large amount of dried bonito flakes (left); Love Meat, with melted cheese to whet your appetite and satisfy your cravings (right)
The Vancouver Olympics in 2010 led to our stores being introduced to people through numerous media outlets including CBC, Canada’s largest news outlet. Also, celebrities such as rapper Ice Cube and actor Steven Seagal, who stayed at the five-star hotel in front of our first shop when they visited Vancouver, bought and tried JAPADOG. The sales and recognition of our menu were boosted as soon as they shared about our products with people around the world.”
“Catching onto the momentum, in 2012, we opened a store in New York City, which had been a long-held dream of ours. However, due to the differences in hotdog culture and tastes between Vancouver and New York, as well as a lack of product development capabilities and the speed necessary to adapt to these differences, we were forced to pull out of the market.”
“We blame putting ‘Gyoza (dumpling) Dog’ on the menu as one of the reasons for our involuntary withdrawal (laughs). However, we’ve been more fortunate on the other side of the country with our opening in Los Angeles.
“Moreover, the management company of the Vancouver International Airport helped us set up our store inside the airport because we’ve had our stall outside the international terminal of the airport for about five years now. Due to this, ‘JAPADOG’ became widely known to people coming to Vancouver from other parts of Canada and overseas as well.”
The store located in the Vancouver International Airport, alongside Tim Hortons. Tim Hortons is the largest coffee and fast food chain in Canada, with more stores in Canada than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.
Selling dreams as a representative of Japan
“My life may seem haphazard, but there is a clear reason for my decision to make and sell Japanese-style hotdogs. Of course, I thought, ‘I can’t expect to make much sales by copying other stores,’ but that’s not the only reason.
“I came all the way from Japan to Canada. If I were to run just a ‘local ordinary hotdog shop,’ what would have been the point of my coming to Canada? As a Japanese person, when I come to a foreign country, I am inevitably driven by the thought that I am a representative of Japan. It is similar to the way that the Japanese national soccer team competes against the world with that feeling. I also wanted to do business in Canada with the spirit of representing Japan.
“And there’s one more thing. We believe that we are not just selling hot dogs, but that we are cooking up dreams, happiness, and excitement for other people. This is our driving force.”
Their slogan is engraved on their business cards
“In November this year (2023), we will open a store in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. And if given the chance, we would like to try again in New York, where we were once forced to withdraw previously, and use that as momentum to expand throughout North America. Of course, I am also interested in opening a store in my home and I would like to further expand into Southeast Asia, which is filled with the energy of its people.”
“As I strive to make my own dreams come true, I would like to deliver dreams, happiness, and excitement to people around the world—served up on a hot dog bun.”
At JAPADOG head office
What is Vancouver to you?
It is a city that gave me a chance.
Vancouver gave me the chance to have a stall even when I had nothing, and the people of this city have helped us grow.
It’s an easy place to live because both the people and the climate are mild. Besides that, various Japanese organizations are active and its Japanese community is still growing today, so I hope that more and more Japanese people won’t be afraid to come here and make their dreams come true in this city.
– Canada facebook.com/people/JAPADOG/100063761311297/
– US facebook.com/profile.php?id=100066669963937