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Big in Japan – Robb Shannon (Nagoya)

Rob Shannon and his Staff

Nagoya is already well known for its truly unique cuisine. You either love it or hate it, and there aren’t too many people who do the latter. This city already has a well-established culinary scene, so it is difficult to break into and actually make it for anyone, let alone an expat from Canada, but that’s exactly what Robb has done. He opened his first restaurant in Nagoya – the hugely successful Sienna, just a few years ago, and is now hoping to redefine the scene again by relocating to a more prominent location and changing Sienna’s concept from West Coast Dining to a Steak and BBQ Smokehouse. Born under the name Midtown BBQ, the new venue opened to glowing praise and compliments to the chef.

We had a chance to pull Robb away from the kitchen for a quick sit down to get the scoop on what makes his ventures so successful:

JD: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us for a bit, even though I know you’re quite busy – especially with the opening of a new restaurant.  Could you tell us a little about your journey so far?

Robb:  That’s no Problem! I did various part-time jobs prior to going to University, including doing a little bartending, and I really liked it.  I decided I wanted to get into the Hotel business – partially to see the world, and partially because I love hospitality.  I just like traveling.  I’m one of those people who gets excited to sleep in a hotel bed.  A lot of people just want to sleep in their own bed, but for me it was always a new adventure.  So I studied Business Hospitality Management.  Soon after, I started managing a small conference centre in my University town. Eventually, I worked with companies such as Fairmont, Westin, etc.  Then I came to Japan on a whim, which may be another story for another time, but I wanted to stay here for one year.  So I got a 1 year Visa to teach English, with the plan to study Japanese within that first year.  At first I couldn’t speak any Japanese, so I couldn’t get into the Hotel business right away.  But I studied and eventually did get into the Hotel Industry here, working with Hilton and Hyatt (in Kyoto) for a while, mostly in food and beverage management.  I was always more on the food side of the industry.

JD: So the idea for opening your own place came through working at those places?

Robb: Yeah.  I was in France and Italy, the two classic culinary areas, for a while to study cooking.  So when I felt I was done with big companies in Japan, I was either going to go home or throw it all in and open my own place.  I thought if nothing else, I’d have a great one-year experience, sell it off after that, and go home, but Sienna did as good as I could’ve hoped, despite not doing much to promote it. I come from an operational background, so I’m not that good at marketing or promotion. I don’t like it that much, actually.  I’m not like a Donald Trump (laughs); I can’t promote myself very well, so a bit of humility in there maybe.

JD: Humility is never a bad thing.  A bit of humility can go a long way.

Robb: But it takes a while to build a customer base.  The great thing about Sienna was, everyone who came in had some kind of connection to us from the start, and the word spread very quickly.  Once in a while a stranger would come in, but we’d build a connection with them quickly.  Here at the new location, there will probably be more people walking in off the street, which will be an interesting change for us, but we will still try to keep that “at home” friendly feeling.  I think Nagoya needs a bit of an international hub – a place where expats from various areas can come, have some great food and drinks, feel a little bit at home and just enjoy themselves.

JD: The concept of your previous venture, Sienna, was quite different from this.  How did you come up with this new idea and changing directions?

Robb:  Well, to be honest, there are some obvious differences, but there are actually also quite a few similarities.  I’ve always been passionate about various foods and restaurant concepts.  Even when I opened Sienna, I wanted to do BBQ, but the location didn’t quite fit with that concept, since it was a bit hidden, and (for some) you had to take a Taxi to get there.  So it evolved into the premium Steakhouse over there.  It was a smaller place, so we didn’t do that much with the decorations there.  Here we have a lot more space, so I was able to do a lot more with it.

JD:  I See.  It really looks great – like a comfortable, homely place in North America, actually.  Why BBQ?  It’s not really a Canadian thing, is it?

Robb: BBQ is typically thought of as coming from the South, but actually it originated in Germany, and with the German immigrants to Texas, eventually became quite popular all over North America.  My Grandfather happens to be German, so he was really into grilling and barbecuing.  My Grandparents always had various grills and smokers around, and that’s what I grew up with.  It was really him that inspired me.  When I was a kid, we had these crazy End-Of-Summer Parties, which my family would organise (I have a big family).  We’d do full Pig-Roasts on a custom-built Rotisserie, and they’d have 60L Kegs of Beer.  Sometimes we had 200 or even 300 people coming, and people would camp out, which was kinda the inspiration for me to be in hospitality.  I view this industry as this is my place, and I have people come over for parties all the time; to eat, to drink, to mingle, and just have a fun time.

JD:  It’s easy to tell that there’s a certain non-corporate, friendly, family-type atmosphere that permeates this place (as well as it did Sienna).  A certain “Soul”, if you will, that a lot of other places don’t have.

Robb:  Yeah, and that’s also how I treat and try to encourage in my staff.  Some people might say “you can’t be friends with your staff”, but I think you have to be because you spend more time with your co-workers than you do with everyone else, maybe even your wife.  We spend our whole professional lives with these people, so why should we not enjoy it?  I believe if you have happy staff, that’ll pour over into the guest experience.

JD: This concept not only for the restaurant, but also for the way to think about staff is quite different from most Japanese places.  How do you think this will impact the Nagoya market?

Robb: I guess that remains to be seen, as we’re just stepping into a more mainstream location here, compared to where Sienna was.  I think more people will obviously find out about us and will be curious to come in, since Nagoya is known for its strong food tastes, and for its fried foods, so it’s a natural fit for a BBQ with those heavy, kind of saucy meats.  Nagoya is also a more blue-collar town; there isn’t even a Michelin guide (for) here, so this kind of food fits that atmosphere more, I think.  It’s good, hearty food.  I like to take things as simple as a burger and put effort into it.  A burger is not just a burger – there’s a lot of  thought that has to go into it, just like any dish.  Same with BBQ – more so even.

JD: It’s easy to tell you put a lot of thought into your dishes.  All the food we’ve had tonight was fantastic!  What, if any difficulties do you anticipate with the Japanese market here?

Robb: Well, there’s a few things.  BBQ restaurants – most of the good ones back home – they cook over real wood/real fire.  It’s difficult to do it justice with an electric grill.  They open at a certain time of the day and close when they run out of meat.  So it might be only a few hours, and that model would not work with the Japanese.  They have strict schedules and expectations, so if you’re gonna run out of food, that doesn’t align at all with the culture and would hurt the success (of the establishment) here.  The other thing is just getting the word out there.  I still have Steak and Burgers on the Menu and hope those items will bring people in, but I’ve added the BBQ offerings to expand the concept, and I hope that people will respond positively to that.

JD: If someone were interested in coming to Japan with the idea of wanting to start a business, what tips would you give them?

Robb: Oh man, there’s a lot (laughs knowingly) … I would say spend some time learning the language and understanding the culture.  It’s really important… a little bit of language ability and cultural understanding goes a long way. At the same time, even though it may sound like a cliché to say this, but just be yourself.  You can’t really become Japanese, and that’s not where the goal lies.  Your value as an entrepreneur in Japan lies in the specialised cultural knowledge you have from outside Japan, and many people here value that.
When you go and live in a foreign culture, many things may seem strange to you, and you could spend your entire time trying to make sense of them all, or you can just accept them for what they are and move on to concentrate on truly making your idea unique.
I think this is a great place with lots of opportunity.  Nagoya is behind in a lot of ways compared to other cities, but that also means there is lots of opportunity here, since now with the internet and technology, many people are realising that “there are all these cool things happening outside of here, why isn’t it happening here”, and that creates more of an awareness, which leads to a lot of potential for new ideas to become embraced.

JD:  I agree!  Nagoya is still a hidden gem in Japan, and places like this help to keep it unique.  Robb, thank you very much for your time and the excellent food.  Best of luck with the new location, and we’ll definitely be back soon!

Robb: My pleasure!  Thank you guys for coming in tonight!

Rob Shannon and his Staff

Canadian expat, Entrepreneur, and Culinarian extraordinaire, Robb Shannon has certainly made a name for himself in Japan; illustrating once again that determination, creativity, and cultural sensitivity, mixed with a bit of luck is always a recipe for success.
Ok, we’re still hungry and there’s a Key Lime Pie (yep, they even have those here) with my name on it, so we’re going to call it a night and Digg in some more.  If you’re in town and would like to check this place out in person, click Midtown BBQ for more information.

Thanks for reading, and see you in the next episode!

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