If there are still modern renaissance men (in Japan), Tony would be their leader. Take one part Puerto Rican, one part mad cyclist/foodie, pepper it with an entrepreneurial spirit, then mix it all in a New York blender, and you’ve got the multicultural uniqueness that’s Tony. Formerly a Nagoya resident, this city became too small for him, however, and now he splits his time between the Big Nag and Tokyo. Originally from Brooklyn this New York native has made quite a name for himself here. Always willing to try something new, he hung up a career in Digital Marketing for following his passion to start a food truck in Japan’s capital. He took a huge chance to realise his dreams of bringing true New York Style street food to the busy streets of Tokyo, so naturally curious and very hungry, we caught up with him during lunch service on a beautiful early spring day at his usual location in Otemachi to find out more about the drive, the passion, and the man behind this unusual journey.
JD: First of all, thank you very much for taking a little time out of your busy day to have a quick chat with us. We’ll start with the most important question first…. What would you recommend from your menu?
Tony: The most popular item is the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. But On occasions I’ll have Brooklyn Style Meatball Heroes on the menu.
JD: That Philly Cheesesteak looks delicious! I’ll have one of those! So what originally brought you to Japan, Tony?
Tony: I first came to Japan in 1988 on a one year contract with a design firm in Tokyo. I loved it so much I returned in 1992 and never looked back. So I guess it’s now over 26 years livin la vida loca in Japan. You know, it’s weird when I think about it, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in Japan.
JD: You’re practically Japanese by now, heheh. Tony, you’ve worn many hats during your time here.. What prompted the decision to put on the Chef’s hat and start a food truck?
Tony: Since I was 15 years old I dreamed of owning my own restaurant. As with all of us, I got sidetracked and never really thought I could make it as a chef. When I hit 51 years of age I had enough of the corporate life and decided to take a risk and start a new life as a food truck owner. I guess it’s never really too late to do something new.
JD: Wise words to live by. People put too many constraints on themselves rather than doing what they truly want to do. You’ve made that dream a reality though. What brought about this passion for (cooking) food?
Tony: Hmmm… My mom was a great cook and I started helping her in the kitchen when I was just a tiny chef. But it was my time I spent working at a summer camp where I befriended the camp cook. I was 14 years old. The camp cook taught me how to bake bread and cinnamon rolls and planted the love in me for the culinary arts. He also introduced me to classical music, which I still love to this day. Wish I could remember his name.
JD: I think that cooking and classical music are a great combination. How has the Japanese response been to your food truck concept so far?
Tony: In a word…Slow. But after one year, I now have my fans. Fortunately I have the truck in a financial district in Tokyo with lots of expats. I would say at the point 70% of my customers are regulars.
JD: That’s great to hear! (Thoroughly enjoying my food..) This is absolutely delicious!!
What’s your overall impression of the food-truck scene in Tokyo, and what are you adding to it?
Tony: The food truck scene in Tokyo is still evolving. I compare it to the “hamburger scene” in Japan 10 years ago. Back then you couldn’t get a decent cheeseburger anywhere in Japan, but over the last 10-15 years the Japanese have really upped their game in this area. Here in Tokyo I can get some of the best burgers in the world for under ¥1000. With the food truck, I am seeing more and more young Japanese people who have lived abroad and brought back many of the things they learned about food trucks during their travels. I say we are about 5 years behind the USA in innovative food trucks, but Japan is catching up.
JD: Do you think the Japanese are ready for this kind of culinary adventure, and could this work in other cities in Japan as well?
Tony: Yes and no. It’s really a matter of population density and local culture. Tokyo is where all new things are tested. With a population of 30 million, there is no shortage of customers and weekend events to test your truck menu. A city like Nagoya with a population of under 1 million might have a tougher time or at the very least, limited growth potential.
JD: Very true! New trends take a lot longer to catch on in Nagoya than anywhere else in Japan. So what is your definition of success?
Tony: I thought I knew the answer to that and many other things. I really don’t know. I guess if you are living a stress free life, you have a measure of happiness and good health and little to no debt, then I might consider you a successful person.
JD: Is there a difference between success in Japan vs. in other countries?
Tony: I love this country and the people. But the Japanese are a depressingly miserable lot. In Japan their obsession with the appearance of work and their self-absorption prevents them from truly being successful in “Living”. I think the Italians might have an edge there. But if you’re looking for a simple answer then I might say that success in Japan is dying in your office cubicle while success in other countries is never having to work in a cubicle.
JD: Well put! I agree that many people here tend to work for work’s sake, rather than for other reasons such as being able to enjoy life more, for example. So other than always having a good glass of wine in your hand and having a good ad-blocker on your phone or computer, what advice would you give someone trying to make it big in Japan?
Tony: The actor David Cassidy who died last year was quoted by his daughter saying just moments before he died “so much wasted time”. Those words mean more to me now than ever. You want to be a success in Japan? Stop wasting time doing what you don’t enjoy. If you have a dream just do it and prepare to fail, but at least you won’t be like David Cassidy regretting all the time wasted.
JD: At the end of the day, after a long time standing and cooking in the kitchen, what meal do you like to cook for yourself?
Tony: Believe it or not, I prefer to just relax at the local Saizeriya and eat their ¥399 pasta and cheap wine. Saizeriya and Coco Ichiban are my two favorite chain restaurants. I look at them as a model of what I want to do with Back2Brooklyn in the future. Cheap, fun and memorable food. You gotta admit that they do it right.
JD: You’re certainly on to something there. I personally also love both of those restaurants for the same reasons. Ok, final question, Tony, what advice would you give to your 25 year old self before embarking on your journey to Japan?
Tony: Study the language more, travel more, save more.
JD: (Chows down on the last bite of this delectable sandwich) Thank you very much for taking some time out of your schedule to talk with us today, and for (finally) bringing great Subs to the Japanese Market!
Tony: You’re welcome, but the story of Back2Brooklyn is still being written. Check back in another year!
For more information about Tony and to check where he’ll be parked, check the information below.
Back2Brooklyn – New York Style Kitchen Car