When I was a sophomore in college, I took a year off to teach English in Japan to help pay for tuition. Having experienced taco truck street food while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, I yearned for the late night snack and saw an opportunity to introduce a decent street taco to the Tokyo late-night crowd. Japan had not discovered Mexican food back in the 80s. Tacos were a caricature of the real thing, cabbage was often substituted for lettuce and the only tortillas you could find were El Paso’s fried hard shells at the expat grocery store.
There is a long tradition of street food in Japan. Scores of ramen or oden pushcarts (yatai) could be found at every railway station with groups of salarymen grabbing a bite after a long day at the office or a night of karaoke. The yatai business is hyper-competitive and you would often spot dusty old pushcarts under railroad bridges, abandoned by someone who had tried and failed to bootstrap their career. My thought was to reclaim one of these old carts, fix it up, and introduce my tacos in the streets of Tokyo after my evening English lessons. Encouraged by my fellow English teachers, I felt I had a core group of regular customers with which to start and it seemed easy enough to fix up an old yatai, find a spare spot, and set up shop. Boy was I wrong.
Locating an old yatai that was abandoned and in decent condition was easy enough. During my spare time between classes I found some carts that were parked a good distance away from any station that appeared no longer in use. There were several of them in what looked like an old yatai graveyard. I found an old one that clearly had not been used for a long time and left a note asking if I could take it. I came back several days in a row to check. When I was confident the owner was long gone, I set to work refurbishing it for service.
I visited the local government office to ask what was required to open a yatai and received a document with several pages of requirements. My basic Japanese translation of the document listed out things such as a source of running water, refrigeration, and a way to keep the food warm. All these would be examined at an inspection by the health authorities before I could get a license.
Perhaps it was my naiveté but I chose a creatively liberal interpretation to meet these requirements:
- Running water? A 20-gallon plastic jug with a hose connected to a spigot running into a “sink” which was a plastic bucket with a hole drilled out of the bottom.
- Refrigeration? I cut a series of styrofoam panels and glued them to the walls of a cabinet and fashioned a door to seal it shut.
- Burner? I placed two portable table-top gas burners into a rack I fashioned to hold them and the pots of taco fillings I would serve.
I think the old health inspector took pity on the innocent gaijin kid with a capitalistic gleam in his eye because when I rolled my contraption to the government office for my appointment, he took a cursory glance, listened patiently to my explanation of how I satisfied all the checkboxes on the form, grunted his approval, and stamped my certificate! All I needed now was a location, this is when I learned about the yakuza.
The yatai business in Japan, is lightly regulated by the government (as demonstrated by my easy approval), but strictly controlled by the yakuza. The area immediately around each train or subway station, while clear during the day, hosts a warren of cozy little noodle stands that crop up around 8 or 9 pm each evening. Every open spot is “controlled” by the local gang who takes a share of the revenues as “protection money” to keep things running smoothly. The yakuza runs interference with the local government, police, and rival gangs to keep them out of the hair of the proprietors and for this service, each yatai owner pays the gang a cut of their profits. A noodle stand can clear between $1000 – $3000 a night so it’s a good business so long as everyone’s happy and things are running smoothly.
My English school was near Yokohama station, a major terminus south of Tokyo so the streets leading to the station were already crowded with many yatai, all with their own specialties and faithful regulars. Of course no one was serving tacos so I felt that was my in. I had scouted out a location on a street under a nearby highway overpass that was in between a busy nightclub district and the station so I felt I could grab some people on their way home or going out for the evening. It was also on the way home from the English school so convenient for the teachers and students as well. It appeared that the space was open so I asked the nearby yatai owners if it would be ok if I opened my stand in that spot.
There is a clear pecking order among all the yatai and I was directed to one stand lording over a fork in the road, a prime spot at the nexus of two major walking routes to the station. The yatai was a ramen cart and the broad shouldered proprietor had such a steady stream of clientele that he required two satellite tables to serve all his customers. I bought a bowl of his excellent tonkotsu and after making small talk about the secret of his broth, explained my street taco concept and how I might go about securing a spot down the road and how much the “protection money” would cost. He explained to me that I would have to meet “the man,” explain my business, and this person would negotiate a fee and grant his permission. I asked when I might meet this mysterious person who didn’t have a name and was told that he would introduce me when appropriate.
Several nights passed and each time I would stop by the ramen stand and ask if “the man” was around and each time was told I had either just missed him or that he had not come by that night. Finally, after about two weeks, I decided that the only way I was going to meet this guy was just to set up my stand and he would come by sooner or later, the chips would fall and I would then know what I was working with. I made final preparations, cooked up a batch of taco fillings to open for business after my last lesson.
Opening night was a roaring success. All the English teachers and several students came by to try out my 300 yen tacos. I sold cans of beer out of a cooler and all the activity attracted a few curious barmaids on their way to work and they promised to tell their friends. No “man” came by on the first night, neither on the second. Just as I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed, on the third night a cheery guy just looking for a good time stopped by and was full of questions about what I was doing.
My imagination prepared me for some scarface gangster in a black suit and red tie but I was totally thrown off by this guy with the fashion sense of a carnival barker. He was such a bundle of joy I showered him with free beers and tacos and me and my English teacher friends quickly won him over. He clearly enjoyed the music we were playing (I think it was Aretha Franklin) and loved the vibe. Later that evening, as I was cleaning things up and he was on his 5th can of Asahi Dry , I broached the topic of “rent” and he shrugged it off and patted me on the shoulder and said that he wanted to do his bit for international relations and sponsor my stand gratis!
I continued the stand the rest of that year, later bringing on a partner who ran the stand on alternate evenings so I could get some time off. One evening it was pouring rain so my partner and I decided not to open for business. The next night, when I was setting up, he was waiting for me, sitting on the curb. He scolded me saying that if I wanted to establish regular customers it was imperative that I be open, rain or shine. A fundamental rule of business that I have never forgotten.
My yatai adventure ended that Summer as I got ready to return to college but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The hardest part of starting a business is starting. Once you gain momentum, people and promise have a way of materializing and turning your dream into reality. And with the right attitude, barriers that you imagine for yourself are just that, your imagination. Chip away at anything and it’s all just people.