2 gaijin free-enterprise guys strike out on their own
by Corky Alexander
In a land that stresses teamwork, consensus, anonymity in the group, the instance of an individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune is rare, indeed. To the average Japanese wage earner, it must be much more comfortable, assuring and less threatening to be a part of the nationwide consortium that is Japan. We’ve all heard the well-worn adage, ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” or such sentiment paraphrased.
So it is not surprising that the latest examples of individual entrepreneurial adventures have been launched by a couple of foreign residents of Japan, a Canadian and an American.
Kyle Sexton, 35, from York, Pennsylvania, is the owner, chief (only) baker, delivery man, salesperson, dishwasher and accountant at Kyle’s Good Finds, an intimate (read “small”), sparkling clean cake-and-pie shop on the main drag near Nakano Station. This gent can bake, chums!
Chris Eyot, 28, originally from Hamilton, Ontario, can be spotted around town—and, increasingly, along the highways and byways in resort areas in Edo environs—in his spiffy little red-white-and-blue truck vending “New York Hot Dogs.” These are the authentic item, let it be known, with imported franks, served either with chili, cheese, sauerkraut and mustard or relish, onions and ketchup. Also available: Cokes and Miller and Heineken’s. Chris specializes in curb service, wherever he can park his truck long enough to vend some dogs— when the yakuza and the cops allow.
Now open for a bit more than a year, Kyle’s Good Finds is enjoying widening recognition, not only from delighted sweet-toothed Japanese in the Nakano neighborhood, but also an increasing number of callers-in who request home delivery. In prices ranging from ¥1,500 to ¥3,500, Kyle Sexton can whomp up such delectable pastries as apple pie, banana bread, blueberry muffins, brownies, carrot cake, cheese cake, cornbread, chocolate layer cake, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin apple bundt bread, pumpkin pie, zucchini bread and, his latest addition, cherry pie. Coming soon: sourdough bread!
The good part comes when Kyle adds, ‘Tell your readers that if they have a special pie or cake they really enjoy, I’ll make it for them if they can provide a recipe. I can make anything with the proper recipe.” This can-do attitude comes naturally to Kyle, a guy who never seriously even thought about being a baker. He was an English teacher, devoted to aikido studies, when his hobby of making cakes and pies caught the attention—and appetite—of friends.
“I used to bring a cake or a pie along when we were invited to parties,” he recalls. “It got to be some kind of ritual, I guess, and soon friends were suggesting that I sell them. They really liked them.” So, he began by working out of his apartment in Suginami-ku (he moved there from out Disneyland way), but soon the demand outgrew the confines of his apartment mini-kitchen.
“I was really lucky,” Kyle says. “I had a lot of Japanese friends who always encouraged me to do whatever I could in making my way in Japan. Four of these men came and volunteered—I never asked for anything—¥1 million each to help me kick off this business. The money paid the key money on this place, helped get the equipment and gave me enough of a financial buffer to get it started.”
He had the makings out for a batch of brownies, which he stirred and mixed while we talked. He left home in York after finishing high school, bound for Providence, Rhode Island, to study photography. He moved to New York City working as a photo finisher (“I never did actually get into photography”) and suddenly found himself infatuated with Things Japanese.
“It’s hard to explain,” he recalls. ‘There was this little Japanese restaurant in my neighborhood. I started visiting there regularly, and one day I woke up with this overwhelming desire to know everything I could possibly learn about Japanese culture, the language, society—everything!”
Kyle says he was immediately certain that he would spend the rest of his life here the day he arrived. ” I knew I’d found my place,” he states firmly. “This would behome.” As with so many others, he arrived on a cultural visa, taught in a Japanese junior high school and continued to improve his language skills. He’s fluent now, conducting nearly all his business in Japanese. He has a permanent resident visa.
He and his wife Shimizu (‘That’s her first name,” he tells me upon seeing a quizzical look. “Her last name is Higake; she writes her given name in katakana“) have three youngsters: Kyle II, 5; Elena, 3 and Safia, 3 months. He and Shimizu first met at a party; they came with others, left together. Their second date came at a meeting of JAFA (Japan Africa Friendship Association); she was visiting, he was president.
I asked Kyle if he’d encountered any animosity or belligerence because of his color (he’s African-American). “Well, not at all from the general population. My wife’s family sort of disowned her when we got married; they’ve not even seen any of the kids. But we haven’t given up. Friends tell us that when they see the grandchildren, their hearts will melt. I think they’ll warm when they see our little girl Safia.”
Kyle’s dad was a janitor in York, but always, since Kyle can remember, has worked at two jobs. “He just quit his second job a few months ago,” he says. “Real good people.” He has one brother and two sisters and between the four of them, they’ve given their parents 13 grandchildren.
With the popularity of the TV mini-series ‘Twin Peaks,” many Japanese came flocking to Kyle to see if he could make cherry pie like that which captivated Special Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI manwho starred in the show. Well, he’s added cherry pie to his repertoire, and you can get a 22-cm. pie for ¥3,500.
The home delivery part of the business is growing quickly. “I had an order for pies and cakes in Hokkaido not long ago,” Kyle informs us. Hokkaido? “Yeah, I think someone had seen one of the stories in a Japanese magazine about me and my shop,” he says. “I sent it there by regular takkyu bin .”
If he gets a very large order—in case someone is having a big party and wants Kyle to cater the pastries—he delivers them in person. Do you drive? “No, I hop on a train, carrying my boxes.”
His latest innovation is custom-made birthday cakes for the kiddies, created from special molds he’s made of a panda bear, a Mickey Mouse-like character and—inevitably—a dinosaur.
Several Japanese customers came in during our chat. One gent only had ¥10,000; Kyle didn’t have change. “Oh, that’s OK,” Kyle told the customer in faultless Japanese. “Just bring the money by next time you’re in the area.”
“My regular customers were surprised at first when I sold my cakes and pies by the slice—and when they get a bit old, I give them away to the kids,” Kyle tells me. My relationships with the folks around here couldn’t be better.”
Anyone interested in placing an order with Kyle Sexton for some ultra-fine pastries should call Kyle’s Good Finds, 3385-8993. The address is Sun Heights Nakano, 2-7-10, Arai, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 165.
PERILS OF A STREET VENDOR
In stark contrast to the warmth and generosity Kyle Sexton has found in his Japanese neighborhood, Chris Eyot has had to scratch, battle and scuffle in his unstinting efforts to make a go of his New York Hot Dog vending business. But similar to Kyle, his is a one-man band type of deal; he does it all himself, although with some start-off help from another kind Japanese gent in the restaurant business.
“It’s not that I couldn’t do OK in this business,” Chris says doggedly. “If I just be left in peace to sell my hot dogs; if I could stake out a place on the street to offer ’em up at a good location. If it’s not the yakuza pushing me from corner to side street, then it’s the police telling me—incorrectly—that I am not permitted to do business in a certain place.
“Often it’s both yakuza and cops seemingly working together to thwart my effort at free enterprise.”
When I first chatted with Chris, he’d just been removed from his favorite location in Otcmachi—near the Urbanette Building where he had gathered a loyal clientele of gaijin economists, stock brokers and traders—under threat of a parking ticket, of all things.
It wasn’t Chris’ first run-in with authority seemingly dedicated to the idea of preventing the sale of New York Hot Dogs. “I had a good thing going at Tokyo Dome,” he recalls. “Man, I sold about 200 hot dogs in a couple of hours one day. Then this dude with the short haircut came by and told me to move along in 10 minutes. I ignored him, so he went to the cop in the koban. Soon along ambles the policeman: move on. You’ve got no choice. You ever try to argue with a Tokyo cop? Forget it.”
He moved to the Roppongi night-life area where he usually works on Friday and Saturday nights. ‘That’s kind of OK,” he says. ‘The yakuza come by, but usually only once a month, asking for their cut. About ¥10,000 a month. But, hey: that’s not so bad. About what folks pay for parking on the street; about ¥1,000 a night. But that’s only two nights a week.
“I don’t really know why the police seem so determined to keep me on the move; I’ve got all the proper health certificates, permits and formal approval for the truck and the food I serve.”
Chris started out a year or so ago with a little scooter, vending the hot dogs from a makeshift warmer on the back. “It was strange,” he recalls. “CNN took an interest in this crazy Canadian dude with the hot dog truck. Just when they had their cameras rolling, up comes this guy from the Health Department to shut me down; I had to have metal walls, a roof and 40 liters of water in my sink. That’s when I decided to design this truck—and I’ve got all that healthy stuff in now. CNN? Oh, they changed the dialogue to something like, Today wasn’t such a great day for Christopher after all…’ Like that.
“I designed the truck and my friend in the restaurant business—Minoru Yoshida of Family Ramen, one’s the finest gentlemen you’ll ever know—guaranteed the funding of the construction. So, here I am looking for a place to work.”
Chris came to Japan as a model after chums of his had told him this was a good place for that sort of thing. He’d modeled in New York and “did OK, I guess.” Once here, he realized that he’d always wanted to run his own business. What kind?
“Well, I had three requisites; 1) No commercial rent; 2) fast income with no receivables; 3) low start-up cost, no investor money. Think this is it.”
It’s not been all that easy in the brief time since he’s been chugging around with the truck. ‘The yakuza have threatened me, I’ve got into a few punch-outs with them, but I’ll survive. I’m tough and I’m determined.”
There is a happy ending to this tale of tribulation and woe. I got a call from Chris on Aug. 10 with the news that not only had he got his place back in Otemachi beginning in the fall, but that he’d found the ideal place for the rest of the summer.
“I was going to Karuizawa, but couldn’t find a real good spot. So now you’ll find me at one of the rest stops on Izu Kogen, on the way to the resort area. It’s perfect: between two towns, in the country, but at a stop where hundreds—thousands!— of cars pause to refresh. And have a hot dog! I’ve even got those little kaban signs, ‘Hot Dogs, 200 meters.’ It’ll be OK.”