Hirohisa Sato of Balnibarbi wants you to enjoy your life

by L.F. Keehn

With over 20 restaurants, cafés, and bars in some of the hottest spots in the Tokyo and Osaka areas, Balnibarbi is a mini dining empire. Hirohisa Sato, the CEO of Balnibarbi, always seems to know exactly where the next hot spot will be.

Or, Sato seems to have the ability to create the next hot spot. “Rather than build a café in a popular district, I want to create a district,” he said to me on a recent interview at Garb Pintino, the atmospheric Balnibarbi restaurant located under the brilliant shadow of Tokyo Tower. He did this very thing with Minami Semba, an area in Osaka that is now a very fashionable spot. Not so when he opened the first Café Garb—the atmosphere and the neighborhood sprung up around it.

Soft-spoken, with a charming Kansai accent when speaking Japanese, he spoke more about his business philosophies with Weekender. Read below for some excerpts.

The universe is infinitely huge. Compared to
that, my life and struggles are nothing. The
simple things, smiles make me happy. And in
the restaurant business, we get lots of smiles.

Can you tell me about your background?
I was born into a merchant household in Kyoto, and my family owned a traditional sweet store. I started to help out when I was five or six, and I worked every day. Mostly I enjoyed it, except during the summer or winter holidays when I had to work and my friends didn’t.

Do you still work there when you go back?
Yes, I do. Over New Year’s, which is the busiest day of the year for our kind of business, I go back and help. Everyone still remembers me from when I was a kid, and they still call me “Hiro-chan!”

So you started off as a businessman.
I was my parents’ child, so I followed their lead. I wanted to help them, especially my mother. The shop was open from 9am–11pm, and my mother would do housework after closing, and sleep at 2–3am and then get up at 6:30am to make lunch boxes for my younger sister and myself. I wanted very much to help her.

How did you get started as a business owner?
I quit university when I was 23. I hated studying. I got a job with a fashion company, and after nine months, I was so successful I became a director. I had started off making ¥150,000, and my pay went up to ¥500,000. It wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to make my own company. I wanted to be independent. I started a new company called HRM, with my old boss, myself, and someone else as investors. But two and a half years later, I retired.

What happened?
I made a lot of mistakes. I had an office in Paris, and at fashion conventions I met many fashion models and went to many parties. I completely had a big head. I didn’t know that the most important thing about a business is to care about what’s happening inside, not to just grow and expand. I just wanted to be rich. Growing up, I couldn’t even afford to buy gloves in the winter. I wanted to be flash.
But when I was 27, my company was in debt; it needed to be completely restructured. I knew I couldn’t do it, so I fired myself. I lost everything. I thought my life was over. I had no company, even my house burned down in an accident.

What did you do after that?
I spent a lot of time thinking about life and re-evaluating my priorities. The universe has a 137 billion year history and it’s infinitely huge. Compared to that, my life and struggles are nothing. The simple things, smiles make me happy. And in the restaurant business, we get lots of smiles. I decided this is what I wanted to do.

Where did you get the name “Balnibarbi?”
I named my company after the country in Gulliver’s Travels where the citizens spend all their time researching strange and useless things for no reason. When I had my fashion company, I was stupid; I wanted to be showy and flash, like the citizens of Balnibarbi. The name of my company is a constant reminder of my mistakes, and of what is important.

What’s next?
My idea is that, rather than to build a café in a shopping district, I want to create a district. I did it in Minami Semba, and I want to do it again with Marunouchi. I want to loosen up that area.

Sato spoke repeatedly about how he loves the neighborhood of Marunouchi. The busy, buttoned down business  district has a buzz about it, and Sato thinks the people who live and work there can do with an oasis to loosen up in. A place to let their hair down and have fun. His new restaurant, Café Garb, located in the heart of Marunouchi, opened its doors Oct. 6. I went to the launch party, and it was a side of Marunouchi I had never seen before. At one point Mr. Sato even slipped behind the turntables and got the whole place jumping to 80s hits. It was a very cool and fun atmosphere, not words usually associated with Marunouchi. But if anyone can change it, Mr. Sato and Balnibarbi can.