Last October we converted the ground floor of a townhouse cafe into a popup Japanese restaurant. We opened with a small menu of casual, Japanese dishes complemented by Japanese beer and cocktails. Over the nine weeks that followed, we improved our recipes and added a daily specials board, including crowdpleasers such as hirata buns and ramen bowls. It was not a big space - just 14 seats, plus 4 bar stools - but nonetheless we were flattered and encouraged by how quickly word spread. By the time we closed for Christmas, we were so delighted with the response, that we now want to make casual Japanese dining part of the permanent Cheltenham restaurant scene.
A new style of Japanese restaurant
Over the last few years of guest nights and popups, recently at The Wheatsheaf in Northleach and at Soushi in Cirencester, I have been honing my vision for the kind of Japanese food that people in the Cotswolds want to eat. For me, that means moving away from a premium and sushi-led offering, towards a more casual style, but still freshly prepared and cooked.
I've been impressed with Cheltenham and feel it is the right place for my first restaurant and a new style of Japanese dining, combining a modern atmosphere, good music, Japanese-inspired cocktails and beers with tasty Japanese food that can either be fresh and light (like our beef salad) or more comforting (like our fried chicken), depending on your mood or tastes. Followed by little desserts, for those who want to end on a sweet note without feeling bloated.
I was also delighted that the project attracted some of Cheltenham's most talented and passionate hospitality staff. As an unknown entity without a big brand above the door, I anticipated struggling with recruitment. Thanks to the team's enthusiasm and hard work, we were up and running inside three weeks from a standing start and the results showed in good feedback about the food, the service and the atmosphere generally - in person, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TripAdvisor. The former team are all keen to come back. Paul Foster is a talented, meticulous and creative partner in the kitchen, who, despite his experience, remains as keen as ever to learn and to develop his own Japanese cooking. Conor has proved his worth as a true utility man, able to turn his hand to anything from DIY, artwork, veg prep and washing dishes. Jamie and Bex, who were an essential asset and the core team front of house for the popup are both keen to come back on board.
Popup to Permanent
We chose the site for the popup because it had all the infrastucture we needed to get up and running quickly. With a lick of paint, some hand painted murals and some creative interior design on a popup budget, we were good to go. Along the way we also made tweaks in the kitchen, either to enable us to add items to the menu or just to make life easier with the larger team than the kitchen was designed for.
Now, having decided that it is time put down roots, we need to take it to the next level. We have secured the same site that we had for the popup - for most restaurateurs finding and negotiating the right site is the biggest hurdle, and lengthiest. For us, it's an ideal situation as we have experience of having actually operated there. But in order for us to meet our potential and grow up from popup to permanent, we need to invest in the kitchen and the restaurant in general.
That's why I have turned to Kickstarter. My bank has been very keen to offer their payment processing and current account services, but less forthcoming on the lending front, to help meet the costs of refurbishing the dining spaces and refitting the kitchen. Fortunately, crowdfunding and Kickstarter in particular has helped to provide the financing to bring several restaurants to fruition.
How it works
The principle is very simple. In return for helping to fund the restaurant, you earn a reward based on your contribution. With Kickstarter, it is all or nothing - unless we meet the target, we won't get any funds - so we also need you to spread the word for us among any potential customers who would like to see this restaurant come to life.
Encouragement and support from people who have "been there, done that"
"I think it fantastic that Koj is going it alone. Food businesses are driven by a passion and anyone who follows their dreams to bring quality dining to Gloucestershire is a massive boost to the whole area. Come on people, get behind this project!" Tom Kerridge, Chef Patron, The Hand and Flowers, Marlow
"Koj's style of food reflects his heritage and he has an understanding of what brings joy to the palate like no other." Michel Roux Junior, Chef Patron, Le Gavroche, Mayfair
"Back Koj - do it!" Tom Herbert, The Fabulous Baker Brothers, Hobbs House Bakery
"I opened Britain’s first conveyor belt sushi restaurant in 1994. My intention with the conveyor belt was to widen it’s appeal and Moshi Moshi in its humble surroundings in Liverpool Street station really took off. I’m really chuffed that Britain has woken up to the delights of sushi but the popularity of sushi has eclipsed all the other amazing dishes in Japan and that’s a shame. Hopefully that’s all about to change! There is no one more perfectly placed to introduce the UK to Japan’s many other flavours; with Koj’s flair and expertise we are all in for treat." Caroline Bennett, founder of Moshi Moshi, London
"We've been lucky enough to have Koj as a guest chef tutor at Lucknam Park Cookery School on many occasions and he always delivers outstanding dishes with bold and exciting flavours. The feedback from his courses has been remarkable. He clearly enjoys cooking as much as he enjoys showing others how to fall in love with authentic Japanese cuisine. We wish him all the best at his new location in Cheltenham and look forward to welcoming him back to Lucknam Park." Hywel Jones and Ben Taylor, Lucknam Park, Colerne
Risks and challenges
The restaurant industry is notoriously tricky but combining my previous career in finance with my passion for hospitality, food and Japanese food in particular, I'm in a good position to navigate the potential pitfalls.
Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time researching the industry, speaking to friends and contacts who have experience in hospitality, and assessing the merits of Cheltenham versus other towns that are close to me (mainly Cirencester, Bath and Bristol).
The result is a business plan that has given me the confidence to get this far and will be a yardstick to measure our progress and attract further investment should we need it.
Competition in the restaurant industry is tough. In a crowded market with a relentless supply of new entrants, differentiation is key - fortunately there are only a handful of Japanese restaurants in the town and surrounding area - and even then, we think we will stand out from the crowd.
It's often difficult for new, independent operators to stand out against the marketing power of the bigger chains. They usually offer pretty good value and 'you know what you're getting'. Quid pro quo, the quality of food and service can be mediocre or inconsistent, so we aim to deliver a better product by keeping our team small, passionate and focused.
A career in hospitality is unattractive to most people: the remuneration is hardly compensation for the long and antisocial hours. Fortunately, by being small and young as a business, we have already attracted good staff and we hope that will continue - by developing an attractive work culture and offering staff a profit share in addition to competitive wages.
I'm lucky to have developed "Koj" as a good brand in the local area, but we will rely initially on word of mouth and social media to help promote us, not just among the residents of Cheltenham, who we hope will form the core of our customer base, but also the thousands of visitors that come to Cheltenham for shopping, Cotswold holidays and the festivals.
Eating out has become a larger part of people's lives in the last twenty years, partly because of a growing interest in food and partly also because low interest rates have given people more disposable income. If interest rates rise, as they eventually must, that disposable income will fall and eating out will become more of a luxury. We aim to appeal to a broad range of customers, both in terms of their age and pockets.
Some operators have blamed Brexit for the closure of some of their restaurants. All I can say is that regardless of the outcome of Brexit, we will still want and need restaurants. It's an uncertain time to be entering the industry, but necessity is the mother of invention. I have faith that I and the people around me will be resourceful when it comes to ideas for increasing revenues and minimising costs.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (25 days)