Story & photos by Wayne Graczyk
In recent years, a number of American fast-food franchises have pulled completely out of the Japanese market. Burger King, Dunkin’ Do nuts, Arby’s Roast Beef, Chicago Hot Dog, Kenny Rogers Roasters, Kent Gilbert’s Taco Time, Church’s Texas Fried Chicken, Sbarro’s Pizza and White Castle are among those that opened here but later shut down operations after varying degrees of un-success.
We even had a couple of A&W Root Beer places in Tokyo in the mid-1970s, and I recall a Kansas Fried Chicken outlet in Koenji, Suginami-ku, about the same time. They’re all gone now; the victims of stiff competition, the stagnant economy and, in some cases, the palates of the local populace. Japanese people generally do not like the taste of root beer, for example.
However, thanks to a foreigner with a good business sense and an optimistic attitude, one U.S. name brand that left Japan in 1994 is making a comeback: Mrs. Fields Cookies.
The foreigner is Belgian-born Emmanuel Bia, co-owner of the (so far) only Mrs. Fields Cookie outlet currently operating in Japan. He re-introduced Debbi Fields’ cookies, muffins and brownies to Japan last autumn, opening the shop in the AEON Jusco supermarket in the new Shinagawa Seaside Shopping Center.
There were three Mrs. Fields cookie stands in Tokyo in the 1980s; one each in Ginza, Roppongi and Kichijoji. But a restructuring of the international retail situation by the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, dictated they cease baking in Japan 10 years ago.
There was a reorganization of the Mrs. Fields company in the U.S., and it was decided by new management that all direct shops owned in foreign countries would be closed or master-franchised.
Meanwhile Bia, looking for a business opportunity in conjunction with his Japanese wife’s food service company, recalled the couple had enjoyed eating delicious cookies almost 20 years ago during their college days in San Diego, and he thought they could be popular if sold here. If only they could remember the name of the cookie maker!
They thought it might have been Mrs. Fields and had some samples air-cargoed from Hong Kong. “We took one bite of those cookies, and we both said, ‘That’s it! That’s what we ate 20 years ago,”‘ Bia recalled.
“We wanted to start something new in Japan. My wife and I had lived overseas for several years, and we worked in the food industry for a long time, but we had never taken a chance with a foreign brand. We thought Mrs. Fields would be a good opportunity, because it was not in Japan at the time, it was a big-name brand and a good quality product, our number one concern. We liked the product and remembered it 20 years after eating it, so it made a big impact on us,” he said.
So he re-opened Mrs. Fields Cookies in Tokyo last October, and business is good, insists Bia, especially on weekends when the Shinagawa Seaside center is bustling with families and children shopping for groceries and other necessities. Most of the Mrs. Fields trade is take-out, as the seating capacity of the store, for those who want to snack there, is six. But, especially on nice weather days, a lot of customers buy their cookies, brownies or muffins, coffee, tea or soft drinks and go outside to the mall’s courtyard to enjoy what they bought.
Two concerns of foreign fast food sellers in Japan, especially the dessert variety, are size and taste. Bia was asked if the products he sells are not too big or too sweet for the local populace.
“Mrs. Fields went through the size experience in Japan and other parts of Asia and decided to reduce the size (from the cookies, brownies and muffins sold in America). We offer here the typical Asian size, the same as they sell in Hong Kong. So, more variety, smaller size; nobody wants to eat a huge cookie that fills you up.
“As for the sweetness, and we might be proven wrong in the future, but we wanted to keep the (taste) identity; that’s the Mrs. Fields philosophy and our philosophy. Also, while people in their 60s today may say our products are too sweet, younger Japanese people like to eat things that might even be too sweet for us (foreigners). They eat a lot of sweets,” says Bia.
“Coke is sweet, and a lot of Japanese fast food products have more sugar, so I don’t think this is a problem.”
The Mrs. Fields Japan menu is simple. Bia says, “We do cookies, brownies and muffins, that’s it. Twenty years from now, you can bring your kids here, and we’ll sell you the same thing.”
Varieties of cookies include semi-sweet chocolate walnut, butter toffee, chewy chocolate fudge, cinnamon sugar, coconut and macadamia, peanut butter, oatmeal, raisin and walnut and white chocolate macadamia.
Brownies come in double fudge, walnut fudge, macadamia fudge, cashew fudge and pecan fudge. Muffin types include orange, banana, chocolate chip and blueberry. Also sold are organic drinks and chocolate made in Bias native Belgium.
All the baking is done on the premises, so everything is fresh. “My staff went to Salt Lake City for training. If you don’t go there, you can’t open the shop,” Bia said. He visits the store every day to check on the operations and works there on weekends.
Bia says he would like to see more foreigners visit the shopping center and check out the Mrs. Fields outlet. “We need more support from the American community, and remember this is the ochugen (Japanese summer gift-giving) season, and our cookies make a great ochugen item.”
Home delivery is also available. For more information, visit the shop between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m., call 5715-8356.
As for the Shinagawa Seaside Shopping Center, there are more than 60 stores, and it’s getting bigger. The supermarket section of its flagship store, AEON Jusco, is open 24 hours a day. Parking is available for 1,000 cars and, if you spend ¥2,000, you can park free for three hours. It is accessible by car in about 20 minutes from the Roppongi-Hiroo area. By train, it is above the underground Shinagawa Seaside Station on the Rinkan Line, two stops from JR Osaki Station.
Bia plans to open more Mrs. Fields stores in the near future but is not sure how many, when or where. “I am always looking for good locations,” he says. “But we don’t want to rush and I something until we are 100 percent satisfied with the location.”
In the meantime, they run periodic promotions, setting up a temporary counter in more commuter-crowded places such as Shibuya or Tokyo Station. “Many people approached me in those places saying they were surprised and delighted to see Mrs. Fields is back in Tokyo,” said Bia.
She is, and her cookies are available in Tokyo once again, thanks to a man from Brussels who believes an American-style baked goods business can still be successful in Japan.
About Emmanuel Bia
Emmanuel Bia, 40, was born in Brussels, Belgium, but moved to the U.S. for university schooling when he was 18. It was while studying in San Diego that he met the Japanese woman who would become his wife, Satoko Minatoya, from Aomori. They have a 14-year-old son, and two daughters, ages 11 and 8. He also attended the University of New Orleans and worked in Africa for three years. He then lived in Aomori for 10 years and has lived in Tokyo since last September.