It can never be easy opening a business in a foreign country. Especially in countries which are such sticklers for bureaucracy, such as Japan. Fax, stamps, endless pieces of paper, visits to city halls and immigration, it can be a real Kafkaesque nightmare. However, for some it can be a success story, a story that inspires and touches people through goods or a service.
When graphic designer Gregorio Narvasa, a Miami-native, moved to Tokyo 14 years ago, he came with a wealth of experience in the design world, having helmed an indie pop culture magazine in the States from 2004 to 2006 and then gaining valuable experience in a succession of design companies before moving to Japan in 2009.
Ever mindful of global trends and potential business opportunities, Narvasa started Monsta Sweets, one of Tokyo’s buzziest sweet startups, in 2022 and it is seriously taking off.
“I saw the world trends and what was happening and I thought making American-style cookies in Japan would be something nice,” says Narvasa in a recent interview with Tokyo Weekender. “For example, in America we’re in the third cookie boom. The first was in the 1980s and was the mall cookie and then several years ago we had artisanal doughnuts and cupcakes and artisanal cookies. And then there were crumble cookies which saw thousands of stores open during the pandemic. In South Korea they made copycats of these big American Levain cookies which were going around the internet and then these caught on. And so many other shops opened copying this style and then there were copies of copies and so on. This led to a huge boom in Korea.”
With this in mind, the Miamian, a keen baker and foodie, established Monsta Sweets after testing various recipes and giving initial samples to friends and people that follow him on Twitter. Legally, in Japan, people aren’t allowed to start a baking business from their home, so he found a rental kitchen and then applied and received his food handler’s license which, somewhat predictably, took more time than expected. Monsta Sweets then took off in May of last year.
Narvasa explains, “I came up with the name Monsta Sweets, playing on the name as they are supposed to be giant chunky cookies. And the phonetic way of saying monster in Japan is ‘monsta.’ So, it’s localized and uses English, but it works both ways. I approached a bakery and asked them if they would be willing for me to use their kitchen. Because in your packaging you have to show where the food was made. That person let me use their kitchen and I make them by myself. This month has been very intense.”
The cookies on offer, which change every month to keep a dynamic variety of flavor and seasonal options, currently include Peppermint Sprinkles, Choco Pi, Gingerbread and Lemon Glaze Cranberry Macadamia, which are all outrageously good. Instagram photos of huge lines outside Monsta Sweets’ pop-up events and queues at the Ojizo Coffee location at Miyashita Park where the cookies are sold and regularly sell out are testament to this. Narvasa’s small and independent firm continues to grow and grow with more orders, outstanding online sales and an expanding amount of word-of-mouth promotion throughout the capital.
The cookie man, as some of his fans call him, says of the upsurge in popularity, “The guys at Ojizo Coffee originally ordered 50 and then a week later they said they needed 150. I’ve had really strong online sales and am trying to implement a pre-order system on the site. One of my contacts came by the last pop-up and introduced me to another person who owns a bento shop and they asked if they could do something together at her shop. It’s in Koenji and called Koenji Shokudo. She took a picture of the cookies and sent them to her partner and they ordered 100 cookies straight away for some of her other locations. And then they ordered more for business association Christmas parties. They then ordered another 200 for other Christmas parties.”
Narvasa has become a truly accomplished hobby baker now and is constantly trying new recipes, perfecting ratios and new ingredients. There’s a feeling that 2023 might be the year of Monsta Sweets, but when asked if he has plans for his own space, Narvasa tells it as it is (and how it is for many other small startups). “It all comes down to money,” he says. “To get a shop location you’ll need six months to a year deposit up front and then I’d have to renovate it and then I’d need a baking license. And to be honest, right now the income generated won’t get me my own shop. But I will pursue it as a casual hobby to enjoy.”
Keep your eyes peeled for more pop-ups and online events through the company’s social media channels, in particular Monsta Sweets’ Twitter account which is regularly updated.