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Why (and how) I launched Belgium's first sake bar
The idea for Sake Bar Brussels began when a friend introduced me to the CEO of a company in Japan that imports Belgian chocolates for Valentine’s Day. He wanted to begin exporting goods too. I did a feasibility study about opening a sake bar here and we decided to invest together to set up a company, with me as general manager.
It’s the first of its kind in Belgium. Brussels was an ideal place to open a sake bar because it’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and there are many expats here who are culturally open and curious to discover new things. So from the target customer point of view, Brussels is very attractive. However, administrative requirements are unclear and time-consuming, which frustrates me. Compared to companies in Japan, suppliers in Belgium don’t always keep their word or take responsibility for their mistakes, so a lack of confidence in their work makes it difficult to run a project. It takes time to find suppliers I can rely on.
Things also take much longer than you expect. I had to learn to be patient – to the point that I was convinced nothing would work. That said, it’s also important not to give up and to stay optimistic. You have to follow up again and again until you get what you requested. When our payment machine didn’t arrive for almost three weeks because of the postal strike, our customers were understanding and encouraging. I think customers in Belgium are patient and accommodating when we face problems.
The company in Japan lent us the initial investment to set up the bar, which we will have to return in five years. The amount wasn’t enough for all the work required so I requested a small loan from ING, but it was declined because the food industry is considered insecure. That’s why I put my own savings in to cover the cost. If we open a second bar, I would like to look for investors.
Our aim is to offer an authentic, contemporary Japanese bar experience. All my employees are Japanese, and customers should feel like they are in Japan when they come to the bar. This means all the food we serve should be something you would find in Japan and not the popular Japanese food you find in Belgium (we don’t serve sushi). Right now, I have no work-life balance: my life is built around what the bar requires, but I believe it’s important that I’m there whenever we are open until we have a more stable business. My goal this year is to be able to delegate the daily operations to my team with confidence.
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time