The Yakatori Supply Chain
Every once in a while in life, one has the opportunity to experience something truly unique and different. My experience brought me to an alley in Tokyo. It has been nearly 25 years since I was last in Asia. At that time, I was doing a grass roots start up project in southern Central Taiwan. 25 years is a long time – I am much older now (about 25 years older…), I have 3 wonderful children and a beautiful wife. As a matter of fact, I proposed to my wife on that trip from 25 years, but I digress. Back to Tokyo.
Japan is an amazing country. As soon as I landed, I was impressed. I stepped off the plane, went through the usual immigration steps with the typical nervousness associated with international travel, and then exited the secure airport to baggage claim. The big orange sign for the bus was right there – I purchased my ticket to the hotel and stepped outside to the clearly-marked bus waiting area. It could not have been easier. Very effective planning and excellent public transportation.
Most cultural experiences begin with food and dining is always an experience in a foreign city. My hosts were most gracious and ensured that I received a true culinary experience. Nakaya-san always had to find the perfect place – we would walk thru many allies, check many menus, and watch the proprietors – if they were too young, we would walk out. Young meant inexperienced, and food was about experience. The cook had to be seasoned, just like his food.
On this night, Yasunama-san was picking the restaurant. We walked straight to his favorite Yakatori place, but there were no tables available. The restaurant was booked solid, so we followed the lead of Nakaya-san, thru side streets and allies, until we saw a very small opening. It wasn’t really a door, and you would not know that this was a restaurant. We squeezed by the 3 regulars who occupied the front half of the house, took off our shoes and kneeled at the table while we had some fresh sushi and beer. Just an appetizer for now, stepping in from the cold, damp night.
We checked with the Yakatori place again, still no table. This time, they took our phone number and promised they would call. We proceeded to a roadside awning for another beer and waited outside. Surprisingly, the phone rang and our seats were ready.
Supply chain rule number 1: have more demand than supply, and think about your back-order process. Sometimes a simple phone call can be very effective to let you know that your product is ready. Every time we walked by the restaurant, patrons were waiting. Waiting patrons is always a good sign – it tells you that there is something worth waiting for.
Supply chain rule number 2: the only way to ensure you have more demand than supply is to have really good product, and if your product is really good your customers will wait, assuming you call them.
Now let’s talk Yakatori. Yakatori means chicken in Japan, grilled chicken on a skewer to be exact. Each skewer has 4 or 5 pieces – breast meat, leg meat, hearts, gizzards, livers, and then some vegetables . There is only 1 chef and he prepares the food on a grill in front of you. The chicken is amazingly fresh, and the spices were liberally applied and just right. The coals were hand-selected from a single supplier, and no ingredient was taken for granted. I have no doubt that this seasoned chef hand-selected all the meats, vegetables, seasonings, skewer sticks, and char-coals. He didn’t delegate – he was clearly in charge.
Supply chain rule number 3: develop deep relationships with your suppliers and demand the best raw materials. Don’t take anything for granted, not even the packaging. The chicken was so fresh that some of it we ate raw. We get nervous in America to even handle raw chicken, so you can imagine my trepidation over eating raw chicken (ironically, I can’t say it tasted like chicken – it actually tasted like sashimi tuna). Ensure that your deliveries are on time, every time.
The chef never left his spot in front of the hot grill, nor did he ever smile. He surveyed the room and continued to prepare skewer after skewer. We did not order any food – it just arrived. It was a wonderful balance of supply and demand. As the plates were emptied, fresh food would arrive. The customer was always happy, and new customers replaced patrons that left.
Supply chain rule number 4: keep your customers happy and they will buy more, they will return. It is critical that your customer is 100% satisfied.
Now here we have a slight cultural variation. In America, we would want our customers to tell all their friends about this place, maybe even feature it on Diners, Dives and Drive-ins. Nothing is more powerful than a customer testimonial. But the Japanese are very keen at preserving their favorite spots – if they told others about it, then it would no longer be special and it would eventually be ruined. So in this case, there will be no success stories, there will be no reference visits, and I will honor my Japanese colleagues and not reveal the name of this very special place.