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Thursday, March 9, 2000

Adventures in global dining with Tokyo's restaurant king


By DAVID CHESTER

From stand-and-slurp ramen shops to authentic French cuisine, Tokyo is a diner's paradise. Certainly, finding places that appeal to your palate isn't a problem; hoping they'll be there the next time around is. Tokyo restaurants go out of business faster than Shibuya girls change their nail colors.

Yet, even in today's rough economic weather, a few brave (or crazy) individuals continue to laugh at the odds and ride Tokyo's trend waves. Kozo Hasegawa, CEO of Global Dining, Inc., is one of those with the right surfboard.

With his movie-star good looks and athletic build, it's difficult to imagine Hasegawa as a college dropout, hitchhiking and dishwashing his way across Europe. That is precisely the bohemian adventure that led him to successfully establish 26 unconventional "theme" restaurants, with six more slated to open by the end of July, earning him the nickname, "The Restaurant King of Tokyo."

Born in Yokohama five years after World War II, Hasegawa witnessed many GIs pass through Japan's international harbor, inspiring him to go out and see the world. His father, however, expected him, as the oldest of three sons, to stay put and take over a generations-old successful family business, selling liquor and rice.

Dreams of exotic journeys faded as Hasegawa prepared to enter Waseda University to major in commerce. "Studying for the entrance exam," he recalls, "was the hardest experience of my life." Once inside the hallowed halls, he realized he didn't find much sense in it. "I never liked the idea of forcing people to fit into a mold," he explains.

At 21, despite his family's wishes, Hasegawa left Waseda after two years, took his entire arubaito-earned bankroll of 250,000 yen (worth about $700 then) and bought a one-way ticket to Europe.

Great times, hard work and a few years later, Hasegawa returned with a Finnish wife and tried for a year to take care of the family business. But, he reflects, "My father and I were so different. I was aggressive and a risk taker; he was not. We just couldn't get along."

There was so much conflict between them that by December 1973, he and his wife left and started their own small coffeehouse, Cafe Hokuokan (Scandinavian House) in Takadanobaba. Working round the clock, they reinvested all their earnings and made great friends with the local banks, enabling them to borrow enough money to start other businesses.

Just as things were looking good, his wife left him.

"I was a beast," he admits. "She was trying to help me be a better human being, but I was working too hard." He adds, "I can take a lot of pain -- I thought others could, too."

Now on his own, the risk taker decided to go for broke. The coffee shop was followed by a pub, then an antique shop ("a big mistake," he grimaces), which, by 1980, reopened in Harajuku as Cafe La Boheme. Despite its unusual interior and affordable Italian cuisine, Hasegawa's first foray into the food business was not a hit.

"We struggled," he says. "The quality and service weren't as high as they are now, but we never stopped making an effort."

Cafe La Boheme somehow survived, and eventually prospered. Miraculously, since that shaky beginning, Hasegawa has opened a new restaurant every year, having only closed four (two were too small to carry full menu items and two were in a building in which the owner suddenly got rid of all the tenants).

Inspired by his adventures abroad, Hasegawa christened his creations appropriately: Tableaux, Stellato and La Boheme (serving "international eclectic" cuisine), Zest (Tex-Mex), Monsoon Cafe (Southeast Asian specialties) and Cafe La Boheme (light Italian fare). Locations now stretch from the tony digs of Daikanyama to celebrity-filled West Hollywood, Calif., guaranteeing unique dining experiences on "both coasts."

Anyone who has visited these fixtures on the Tokyo dining scene is first struck by the decor. Created by Global Dining's in-house designers, the interiors have been described as everything from "bohemian" to "bordello."

Over the top, yes; overly expensive, no. Healthy-sized portions and great wines (imported directly from wineries in California) all at extremely affordable prices, are "the reason the restaurants are so successful," claims the owner.

It's really Hasegawa himself, however, who makes the difference. Using his own example, he hires staff for their creativity and capability, not because they have a degree from the right schools. Some of his chefs have studied in Europe, but, he says, "We expect our people to have talent. Like performers on Broadway, they know what to do; if they have experience, we appreciate them all the more."

Hardworking employees have been rewarded by getting in on the latest initial public offering: Global Dining went public last December and is now listed on the TSE as G-Dining. Hasegawa is quite confident he will be opening his restaurants in every major city in the world.

There is another reason for making sure Global Dining continues to grow and prosper: the ladies in his life. Seven years ago he married Cathy Berg, an artist and former model from Spokane, Wash. Now, "restaurant princesses" Julia, 6, Sabina, 4 and Sophia, 1, are helping to run their world.

Hasegawa, who regularly participates in the L.A., Hong Kong and Honolulu marathons, doesn't hesitate to share his secret for success: "Having fun is the most important thing in life, but the next important thing," he pauses dramatically, "is the definition of 'having fun'!"

It looks like this man is having a ball.



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