It’s been a year since local wood-fired bagel shop Eltana announced they were opening a shop in Japan—a surprising business deal that landed in co-founder Stephen Brown’s lap when the president of Fujio Food System, a Japanese chain that owns more than 700 restaurants, fell in love with his bagels on a Seattle visit. Now, a lovely café that looks very much like the beloved locations in Capitol Hill and Fremont is opening near Osaka.
Brown just got back from Japan and is delighted with how the project has turned out. “This last year has been us coming to grips—and I don’t mean that we had a problem with it—with letting go,” he says. Brown considers Eltana a very specific brand, with careful consideration paid to everything from real estate choices to how they greet customers in line to menu development. “But the question [has been] how does that precision here in Seattle inform decisions and operations in a country I know nothing about?”
The result has been Brown loosening the reins a bit and putting a lot of trust in the Fujio Food System folks—he gave them an image-heavy brand guide and has largely left it to them to dictate how that plays out in terms of Japanese site locations, consumer behavior and tastes when it comes to bread products. He does occasionally get to correct some of the limited English used on in-store menus, but “anything other than trusting and supporting these guys is just a folly.”
When I asked how a Montreal-style bagel shop from Seattle translates to a Japanese audience, Brown was quick to point out that though Eltana is definitely in line with how they famously make bagels in Montreal—fired in a wood-burning oven—they purposefully don’t use Montreal in any of their branding. The Japanese store plays up Seattle heavily, he says, mentioning that the aesthetic and vibe of Eltana, not just the bagels, was what the Japanese executives found appealing: “It’s more than just a hand-rolled bread product they were interested in.”
Now that Brown has such far-flung expansion underway—they’re hoping to open another Japanese store if this goes well—he’s scouting potential locations closer to home: No leases have been signed, but he says they’re looking at West Seattle, the northeast part of the city and an Eastside spot that would be accessible to Kirkland, Redmond and Bellevue residents. Los Angeles seems a likely outpost as well.