Taking Irish food international: This Tokyo-based restaurant owner expanded through Japan despite COVID-19

Alan Fisher | Founder of Kyojin Company

Kathryn Wortley

Alan Fisher was running a small yet popular Irish restaurant in central Tokyo when COVID-19 forced him to close his business in February 2020. The lockdown prompted him to abandon a move to larger premises and rethink his business plan. Since then, he has relocated 750 kilometers to Matsue and the business is thriving against the odds.

Difficult times force new, innovative ways to do business.
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If I’d known then what I know now, I would have speeded up the relocation process and jumped straight out of Tokyo.
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undalk-born, Tokyo-based entrepreneur Alan Fisher is passionate about sharing his Irish heritage. He is the founder and owner of Kyojin Company, which includes a restaurant that serves Irish fare and showcases Irish culture and an import arm that supplies beer wholesale.

Despite suffering a decline in sales as people stayed home to curb the spread of COVID-19, Alan is optimistic after several business pivots triggered by the pandemic. Not only did he switch his company entirely to B2C markets and launch an online store, he also relocated 750 kilometers away from his Tokyo base to Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.

Alan says that starting anew is daunting, but that he’s confident it’s the right move. He even feels positive looking out at Matsue’s lakes, which remind him of his hometown in Ireland.

“We needed more space for the business and, in general, I’ve always found that Tokyo takes all your energy. I don’t think it’s a very healthy environment. And as long as I’m moving forward with the business, I’m happy anywhere,” he says.

Bringing Irish culture to Japan

After completing a master’s degree in marketing at Dublin City University in 2008, Alan applied to an Irish government program to place graduates in careers in Asia. At age 25, he found himself bound for Tokyo to work in international sales and business development for an IT company, a role he hoped would allow him to return to Ireland in a few years with “a bit of experience” under his belt.

Six years later, he was still working for the same company when he said farewell to a large group of family and friends from Ireland who had traveled to Tokyo to witness his marriage to Japanese partner, Ai. The extended celebrations reminded him of who he really was and what his life should be about. “Up until that point, I’d chased money,” he says. “But I realized I didn’t like the work I was doing and I worried about the future.”

Alan took a large piece of paper and mapped out what career options he had in Japan, Ireland and Canada (where his brother was living at the time). As Ai had recently launched her own business, he felt moving abroad would be unfair, so he decided to find a new livelihood in Tokyo. Recognizing his passion for introducing people to authentic Irish food and culture, he opened a restaurant offering traditional Irish comfort food like soups and stews. He named it Kyojin (meaning “giant”) Stewhouse, a nod to his almost two-meter stature.

A Japanese appetite for Ireland

In February 2015, Alan opened the restaurant in the Togoshi district of Tokyo, much to the delight of local people eager to try a largely unfamiliar cuisine and expats seeking a taste of home. He threw himself into the local community’s business and social activities, organizing cultural events such as live music performances.

The restaurant gained a loyal fan base and sales steadily grew. In February 2020, a nine-month project to raise funds to move the successful restaurant to a larger location was nearing completion. Fisher had hosted festivities in connection with the Rugby World Cup 2019, his own Irish Culture Week and a local lamb festival. He had also held a Christmas event, where he served Irish fare and beer. He planned to have a stand serving Irish food and drink at Tokyo’s I Love Ireland Festival in March, but watched with apprehension as news of a novel coronavirus spreading in China began to make headlines in Japan.

Difficult times force new, innovative ways to do business.

Adapting to COVID-19

“I knew the virus would come to Tokyo so I monitored it and started to adjust the business,” Alan says. He added what he describes as a healthy lemon chicken stew to the menu, introduced hand sanitizer at the entrance and limited the menu for the I Love Ireland Festival, which was ultimately canceled.

With the rise in COVID-19 cases through March, the local and national governments called for Tokyo residents to curb their social interactions and limit weekend outings. Alan saw an increase in cancellations and a fall in bookings, as well as reduced foot traffic around the shopping arcade near his restaurant. Fewer people were going out to eat and future short-term prospects for sales, both at the restaurant and at events, looked bleak.

Alan realized he had to rethink his business plan. Until then, the company had been focused on restaurant sales and wholesale of imported Irish craft beer to pubs in Tokyo. Three years earlier, in 2017, Alan had made vague plans to open an online store to diversify the company’s income streams but the venture had never progressed. A rapid chiller, a vacuum packer and other equipment to package stock were unused, as were various licenses that he had obtained.

Alan decided to finally make use of the equipment, and once the decision to open the online shop was made, he moved quickly. “After dragging our feet on it for years, we announced the launch publicly so we were committed to it,” he says. “Difficult times force new, innovative ways to do business, and we hoped the online store would help the business survive the pandemic.”

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Pivoting to online sales

Alan closed the restaurant and used the space to prepare, store and ship products, while setting up a website, creating an online menu and fine-tuning the logistics. After securing the few remaining licenses required, the online store opened on April 8, the day after a state of emergency was declared in Tokyo.

Residents were advised to stay home except for essential tasks such as work, grocery shopping or medical treatment. Eating and drinking establishments were among the businesses asked to operate reduced opening hours. Kyojin Stewhouse remained shut and focused on its new venture.

Between working on orders, Alan continued to look for larger premises in Tokyo, hoping to find somewhere that could eventually accommodate the restaurant and operations for the online store. His top choice was the central district of Yotsuya, where Ireland House (the new home of the Irish embassy, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland) is slated to open in a few years. But despite reaching the final stage of negotiations for three sites over several months, he failed to seal a deal. Alan’s next move was to the one other place in Japan that he knew has a strong affinity with Ireland: Matsue.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have speeded up the relocation process and jumped straight out of Tokyo.
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Relocating to Matsue

A small city on Shimane Prefecture’s Sea of Japan coast, Matsue was the adopted home of Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn, who arrived in Japan in 1890. Hearn was so enamored with his new home that he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo and married into a local samurai family. He spent the rest of his life writing about Japan, which earned him international acclaim as well as popularity among Japanese people. Today, Matsue boasts a number of attractions related to Hearn and Ireland, which Alan hopes will give him an advantage when attracting customers.

The Matsue Kyojin Stewhouse now operates as the headquarters of Kyojin Company, and the Togoshi restaurant has reopened since restrictions were lifted.

“If I’d known then what I know now, I would have speeded up the relocation process and jumped straight out of Tokyo rather than looking at sites there when Tokyo real estate players refused to accept there was a pandemic and were reluctant to change,” Alan says.

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The Dean and DeLuca strategy

Kyojin Company is currently focused on what Alan calls his “Dean & DeLuca strategy,” which centers around incorporating retail sales at the restaurants’ registers. The key is showing customers what the company is all about, Alan explains.

Both restaurants act as showcases for Kyojin Store, the online platform, and customers can buy items to take home. In Matsue, specialty coffee, frozen stews and sausages and craft beer are on offer, as well as non-food items such as crocheted objects and books published under the Kyojin brand. Diners can read about the company’s mission and activities in a colorful explanation file at each table, and staff members distribute discount coupons for the online store.

“Everything we do now is about showcasing the Kyojin Store. This is the future of our business,” Alan says. “The store’s nationwide coverage has potential and we’re delighted we can now ship a little taste of Ireland to customers all over Japan, from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north.”

Online sales go some way to replacing the business that Alan lost in his wholesale supply. The emergency measures have meant restaurant and bar closures, and even when establishments are in operation, it’s with reduced hours and fewer customers. That means many pubs are struggling to sell stock before it expires, let alone buying more imported beers. Alan is also aware that increased online sales are a security net in the event of his own restaurants having to close.

Planning for the future

The company’s current efforts are focused on tackling three main challenges: winning over the local people in Matsue and building a solid customer base, reducing operating costs to mitigate reduced sit-in sales caused by the need for social distancing and reduced capacity at events, and addressing the long-term dip in sales in the warmer months by adding a BBQ terrace at the Matsue location.

With six years’ experience running a successful business, Alan is confident that he can weather the storm of the pandemic and secure long-term success for his growing company. He says that the most important lesson he has learned is to diversify income streams, which was a concept embedded into his business plan as far back as 2017. He had the seeds in place for the online store, but it was the pandemic that pushed him to water them and let them grow.

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