The Secret to Success in the Tokyo Restaurant Business? Don’t Go It Alone

two-rooms-ruby-jacks-r2-supperclub

A Ghanaian, an Australian, and a New Zealander open up one of Tokyo’s top bars…


By Matthew Hernon


Ghanaian Edward (“Eddie”) Baffoe, Australian Matthew Crabbe and New Zealander Nathan Smith decided to open up their own restaurant and bar in Omotesando six years ago. Known simply as Two Rooms, it is one of the trendiest establishments in all of Tokyo with great food, service and views of the city. It attracts a wide range of guests, including numerous celebrities such as Liam Gallagher, who chose to launch the Japanese version of his clothing label Pretty Green there.

The three men are extremely ambitious and also have two other businesses: a steakhouse and bar called Ruby Jack’s and the R2 SUPPERCLUB, both located in Roppongi. So what are their thoughts on doing business in Japan, what were their biggest challenges and how do they really feel about each other? Weekender recently met up with them at Ruby Jack’s to find out.

Firstly why Japan?
Eddie Baffoe: Coming from Ghana, Japan is a place that has always intrigued me and one that I really wanted to see for myself so one day I just decided to come out here to work.

Nathan Smith: Me too. I’d been to Japan when I was younger on a scholarship and really wanted to come back. I had a hotel background with the Hyatt in Australia so that was my way in.

Matthew Crabbe: I actually wasn’t interested in Japan, but I was working in Mexico and got an email offering me a job at the Hyatt here. I’d have been crazy to have turned it down.

What were your first impressions of the country?
EB: Well, I had this idea in my head that everyone would be wearing kimonos and things like that, so I was surprised to see so many people in suits (laughs). Right away, though, from the food to the kindness of individuals and everything in between it has just felt right being here, like this is the place where I belong.

MC: Coming from Mexico it was like night and day, especially when I saw the price of the taxi from the airport! The next time I got a cab was going through Shinjuku to Park Hyatt and there were all these neon signs that reminded me of “Blade Runner.”

NS: I’ve always found the culture and systems incredible. You’ve got this small island with more than 120 million people on it and everything just seems to work. I describe it as one of the last ideal societies left on the earth.

How did the three of you get together? Did you hit it off straight away?

MC: Nathan and I were both working at the Park Hyatt and then we met Eddie at the Oak Door, where he was manager. Straight away we all had a great rapport. Actually, tell a lie, the first time I went out with Eddie we actually had a big argument. Once we found out about each other’s personalities, though, we got on great. We have our ups and downs and the three of us fight sometimes, but it is all good. We are like brothers really.

What would you say were each others’ strengths and weaknesses?

MC: Eddie is a brilliant bar tender, but much more importantly than that he’s unquestionably the best people person I’ve ever met. From presidents of countries to the police, the diplomatic way he handles things is sensational. His weak point: computers. He is absolutely hopeless, I’m not sure if he can even turn one on!

The whole thing has worked really well because there are three of us; if it had just been one person it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve the success we’ve had.

As for Nathan, I’ve been working in this industry for 25 years and I’ve never seen anyone like him. His management skills are second to none. He’s the best service person I’ve ever met. Something bad about him? I’m not sure I should say.

NS: Yes it could be quite dangerous to talk about our weaknesses (laughs). I would second everything Matthew says about Eddie. Matthew is an artist. Sometimes he will cook something and it will be like “where the hell did that come from?” That said, there are some weird things that come out as well!

MC: You haven’t seen some of the stuff that goes straight in the bin!

How important was it to have the three of you running the business?

EB: Very. We found that three guys working together could produce something special. We’ve got the food covered with Matt, service with Nathan, then I provide the drinks. The whole thing has worked really well because there are three of us; if it had just been one person it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve the success we’ve had.

MC: Especially with the hours we do. Nathan and I come in at 11 and go until to the evening, Eddie usually does the afternoon until early morning. I could never imagine doing it all by myself. With three of us involved we can go that extra mile for our customers and focus more on strengths.

How much of a challenge was it at the beginning?

NS: Well just before we signed the lease over the Lehman shock hit so that was a huge worry. We were a little torn, but then had a meeting amongst ourselves and decided to go for it. I think we were the only new place that opened for ages.

MC: I was concerned about the size. I told the guys before we launched that we were aiming too big and that we should just go with a 40-seater. We ended up with 186 seats, but could have probably gone even bigger than that. Things have grown over the years and that is why we decided to expand, opening the club and Ruby Jack’s.

So what advice would you give to an individual or group looking to start its own company in Japan?

NS: Get someone with experience in Japan to be an advisor. A strong relationship with a Japanese bank is also a must. Don’t go into it like a bull in a China shop. The way you portray yourself in the market is very important so be humble and respect the culture. If you have the background, experience and advisors in place as well as those financial connections you should be OK. Finally make sure your product is better than your competitors: if it isn’t then you need to place it strategically in the market.

EB: For me networking is the crucial thing. You need good connections to make an impression, particularly in this industry. On top of that I think it’s a big advantage to have a strong Japanese team behind you. We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without people like Maki (Matthew’s wife) working her magic in the PR department.

Finally what is the one Japanese book or movie you would recommend for our readers?

MC: I’m a fan of the Ghibli movies like “Spirited Away”, but I also like violent ones such as Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” and “Ichi.”

EB: Yes, I was going to go for “Ichi” too.

NS: For a book I would recommend “How to do Business with the Japanese” by Mark Zimmerman. It’s got all kinds of great tips in there from handing out your business card to speaking in a respectful way to someone who is older than you. It helped me a lot when I first came out here.

Image: From left: Eddie Baffoe, Matthew Crabbe, and Nathan Smith in front of Ruby Jack’s

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