In a launch that was over 20 years in the works, Singaporean barbecued pork chain Bee Cheng Hiang has finally made inroads into Japan - its 11th overseas market which is also the hardest to crack.
It opened its first store late last month at the heart of glitzy shopping hub Ginza - the 15 sq m takeaway just a stone's throw away from the world's largest Uniqlo store.
The group's general manager Daniel Wong attributed the lengthy process to Japan's strict food safety and regulatory compliance framework, a business culture complicated by the language barrier, and the decision to wholly own the store instead of leasing it out to a local franchisee.
There were also government-to-government level talks to allow the import of meat from Singapore, he added, including trips by officials from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to Bee Cheng Hiang's Singapore factory to observe its operations.
To make up for lost time, it is embarking on an aggressive expansion drive with more stores already being planned along the Ginza belt and the Shimbashi business district.
No timeline was given but it has a track record of rapid expansion.
It already has 17 outlets across three cities in South Korea, where it opened its first in Seoul in 2010.
Peggy Chin, who is in charge of the brand's Japan operations, told The Straits Times about Bee Cheng Hiang's confidence in breaking into the Japanese market.
"The feedback from the other markets in north-east Asia - Hong Kong, (South) Korea, Taiwan - has been that Japanese tourists buy our product and recognise us as the 'barbecue chain from Singapore'," she said.
"So, we are very confident that the potential here is unlimited."
When The Straits Times visited the Ginza store last week, the staff - Singaporeans on temporary work visas - were overheard conversing with customers in a mix of English, Mandarin and Japanese.
A first-time customer who gave his name as Mr Yamamoto, 55, said he was drawn to the store by the aroma of freshly barbecued pork and the samples provided by promoters.
"The products are interesting and I was curious about what Bee Cheng Hiang is selling," he said, adding that he likes the "unique" and "a bit sweet" taste.
Ms Chin said that Bee Cheng Hiang is looking to launch booths at local department stores to further promote the brand.
And to better appeal to the Japanese market, it has adapted its packaging, she added.
For example, it has created food sleeves for customers who want to eat on the go.
It has also tweaked its logo by shrinking the Chinese characters to "try to work around the misconception among some Japanese that we're from China".
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