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Sunday, March 9, 2003
ROLL 'EM OUT
Sandwich bars spread thick and fast
By MAMI MARUKO
Can two slices of bread with a filling in between take on a box full of bite-size eats?
Benjamin Warner, president of benugo Japan, certainly hopes so. In spite of how fast his British-style sandwich bars are growing, Warner isn't underestimating the competition: A sandwich-and-coffee lunch won't trump the bento-and-green-tea combo, but it could become an attractive alternative. "I love bento! Why replace them?" he says. "Japan has a wonderful culinary culture. So I hope we're just adding one more item to the range of products in the Japanese market."
In September last year, the concept of the British-style sandwich bar made its debut in the Japanese market with London-based Pret A Manger, which first opened in Hibiya. It now has five more branches in Tokyo.
Benugo followed in November last year. Winner of the 2002 "Best Sandwich Bar of the Year" award in the United Kingdom, benugo U.K. was founded in 1998 in London by Benjamin's two younger brothers, Benedict and Hugo Warner (benugo is a compound of their names). In Tokyo, benugo Japan first opened at Ebisu Garden Place, then in Akasaka Mitsuke's new Prudential Tower. A third benugo is slated to open in Shiodome's Nippon TV building in mid-May, and two more by the end of this year.
What makes the sandwich so ubiquitous is its adaptability. Warner doesn't want benugo's sandwiches to be any less British than their London counterparts, but the menu -- while featuring many items in common with its London outlets -- has been modified to make use of locally available ingredients. And whereas the sandwiches are always made-to-order in London, Tokyo's benugo outlets offer ready-to-eat "classic sandwiches," for the busy office-goer who'd rather have lunch at his desk. This works well for benugo, too, because its Japan stores are too small to prepare all the sandwiches to order.
Warner must also contend with the Japanese preconception of sandwiches as "cold food." "A lot of Japanese people around me told me that Japanese won't eat 'cold food,' " says Warner. "So I said to them, 'who says it's going to be cold?' "
Benugo's hottest-selling items are, well, hot. Prepared with specially made-to-order ciabatta bread, fresh organic vegetables, preservatives and additives-free ham and sausages, and a wide variety of cheeses (all delivered daily), the "hot combination sandwiches" are grilled till they're crispy.
"I'm health-conscious and I like the the hot, healthy food here," says a 26-year-old office goer who frequents benugo's Ebisu outlet.
In the next three years, the company intends to open around 16 sandwich bars in and around Tokyo, but Warner says he'll play it cautious, ensuring that the first few stores are profitable before opening more. "In the future, we will expand nationally, particularly along the Pacific coast, targeting cities such as Fukuoka, Kobe, Yokohama, Sendai and Sapporo." They are also looking to open in China, starting with Shanghai, later this year.
Its biggest competitor, Pret A Manger, plans to open 15 new stores in the Kanto area over the next year. They have plans to go national in the long run.
Business is booming for now, and it couldn't be in more able hands. Warner started out studying catering and hotel management in the early '70s before switching to architecture. He has been living in Japan, on and off, for the last 22 years, and owns the architecture & design studio C.D.I Aoyama Studio in Minato Ward. (Warner has designed all of benugo's Japan outlets.) "I've always wanted to open a sandwich bar here [in Japan]," he says. "It's like coming back again [to the food business]." (The Warner brothers once owned two Pret A Manger stores in London.)
Warner bought the license from benugo U.K., cofounding benugo Japan with his partner Andrew Mankiewicz, who looks after fundraising and investor relations for the company. Mankiewicz is no newcomer to the food market -- he founded Pizza Express Japan K.K. in 1999 and is now executive director of the company.
According to Yasufumi Umehara, operating manager of benugo, one-third of their customers are foreigners. "They tell us that they've been waiting for a sandwich bar like this," he says.
So has Miki Kunimura of Suginami Ward, one of the many young Japanese women who lunch regularly at benugo's. "Until now, I could only get standard sandwiches, such as egg or croquette ones," says Kunimura, who first tasted British-style sandwiches in England. "But this is great," she says with a big smile. "I can finally eat real sandwiches!"
For more information on benugo, go to www.benugo.co.jp