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Sunday, March 9, 2003

You too can brew a business

Want a little kissa of your own?

Special to The Japan Times

So you've spent one year too many teaching English conversation and it's time for a serious career change. You want a job that's stimulating and creative. You want to be your own boss and perhaps even the boss of others. Maybe, just maybe, you want to run your own cafe, right here in Japan.

It's not an unfeasible plan, even for a foreigner. If you're the hard-working and meticulous type and also have lots of cash on hand (think towering piles of the stuff), then acquiring your own java joint will be a matter of clearing a set of technical and bureaucratic hurdles.

As the step-by-step guide below shows, your main concerns will be securing space and then complying with an extensive set of health and safety regulations. And did we mention money?

1. Making space

The first thing to do is locate and secure the site of your future cafe. And you'll need plenty of cash to do this, as your landlord will likely require a deposit equivalent to 10 to 25 months' worth of rent. What's more, if the property used to be something other than a coffee shop and thus requires a lot of radical renovation, the landlord may expect a hefty cash "gift" in compensation.

2. Planning for the future

Before applying for a business license, you need to come up with a blueprint of your shop's floor plan. This can be created by a professional or, if you've got a bit of drafting experience, by yourself. Make sure the diagram includes all the equipment, fittings and furniture. When that's done, hand the plan over to an interior design and construction outfit -- or do it yourself if you've got the skills -- to begin turning your dream into reality.

3. The right stuff

You'll need to acquire the basic tools of the cafe trade: refrigerator, oven, and so on. All appliances need to be in compliance with health and safety standards. For the fridge, this means a high-quality unit capable of keeping things chilled to below 10 degrees. Health inspectors are particularly fond of the ones equipped with accurate and easy-to-read thermometers.

Similarly, the water heater will be required to produce a continuous flow of water heated to 65 degrees. The kitchen sink will have at least two basins, one for washing food and the other for dishes and cutlery. Oh, and don't forget the coffee machine. If dishing out top-notch java is your aim, expect to invest a bundle in this. A professional coffee maker can cost upward of a million yen. More modest models can be had for only 300,000 yen.

4. Germ school

Time now for a bit of formal education. You need to get to the hokensho (public health care center) in your establishment's ward or prefecture to sign up for a lecture on food hygiene. Don't worry, it only takes a day and there's no exam afterward. Your Japanese better be good: The lecturers give technical details on the myriad ways of killing bacteria in the kitchen. However, all you need to do is sit and listen obediently. Afterward, you can are qualified to call yourself a shokuhin eisei kanri sekininsha (food hygiene manager).

5. Kissa or cafe?

There are two main types of coffee shops in Japan: kissaten and cafes. The former are probably the pokiest kind of businesses in Japan, yet it seems that no Japanese community would be complete without one. They serve coffee and other types of nonalcoholic beverages and little else, in line with the strict conditions of the kissaten business licens. Kissaten staff are banned, for instance, from using knives, so cutting food is a no-no. Thus nearly all cafe owners opt for the inshokuten eigyo kyoka (permit to run a food and drink establishment), which leaves you free to serve just about anything you want.

6. License to brew

Now you've reached the most critical and potentially stressful point of the whole process: applying for the business permit. Applications are made at the local hokensho. The standards for building design, health and hygiene are complicated, mainly because each prefectural government has their own, despite the fact hokensho offices are all under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

But take heart: There is plenty of scope at this stage to iron out any potential health and safety troubles. That's because the application requires you to submit your floor plan, called an eizo seitsubi no haichizu, and an outline, an eigyo seitsubi daiyo, giving the technical details of your cafe's property and equipment.

Make an appointment, and a counselor will peruse the above two documents to point out any such problems. Once that's been dealt with, sit back and wait for an inspector to arrive and poke around the place to confirm it meets hokensho standards. If so, then congratulations: You're officially in business! You will be issued a business license, usually good for 5 to 8 years. It normally takes around a month for the permit to be issued from the time of date of application.

7. Taxes and cops

Thought all the red tape was finished? Think again. Now it's time to go to the local tax office to report the details of your new business. Once that's over, make sure to stop by your friendly neighborhood koban -- the police will want to know about your new cafe.

This isn't so that they can do a better job of catching thieves, but rather to prevent your place becoming targeted by yakuza protection rackets. Even so, this seems more like a formality than an effective measure. Gangs of hoods are still occasionally known to barge into shops demanding not only protection money, but also coffee and cake on the house.

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