FEATURE: Four routes to the top in restaurant business.
Kenichiro Okada, Naomi Munetsugu, Toshio Chida and Takehiko Tanaka have at least one thing in common. By taking advantage of turning points in life, they have advanced in the food business and become rich.
Okada, 36, who grew up in Osaka, wanted to become a professional baseball player to make his family rich and give them a taste of the good life. But he was forced to abandon the dream while a senior high school student because of trouble in the school's ball team and began working part-time at a Korean restaurant.
Five years later, he was promoted to chef because the dishes he cooked became quite popular but decided to quite the restaurant, saying, ''I want to become a major leaguer.''
Seven years ago, Okada, using borrowed money, opened his first Chanto restaurant in Osaka's Shinsaibashi area. He has since opened 30 Korean and Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kyoto and other places.
Last year, his company, Chanto Co., posted 6.7 billion yen in sales and is scheduled to open its first overseas restaurant in Hong Kong in May. An advance to New York is also planned.
Munetsugu, 50, who hails from Aichi Prefecture, dreamed as a girl of being in the guest-entertaining business. She opened Curry House CoCo Ichibanya on the outskirts of Nagoya in 1978.
''Curry is Japan's national dish. Our customers can freely choose the kind of curry and toppings. Each family member can enjoy his or her own favorite dish, and our prices are cheaper than those of family restaurants,'' she said.
Her company, Ichibanya Co., now runs more than 700 chain restaurants throughout the nation and listed its shares on the over-the-counter market in February last year.
Her husband, Tokuji, who used to run a real-estate company, quit the job and joined his wife in running coffee shops, the first being in Ichinomiya. The coffee shops became the predecessor of the curry chain restaurants, whose number she hopes to increase to 1,000 in the future.
Chida, 57, could not forget the ice cream produced by Abbott's Frozen Custard Co. which he tasted while studying at New York State University more than 30 years ago. Before returning home in 1971, he asked the company for permission to sell their ice cream in Japan but his request was rejected.
Chida, however, is not one to take ''No'' for an answer, and he visited the United States every year to realize his dream, while running a cram school in his native city Sendai in northeastern Japan. Abbott's finally gave him the right to manufacture and sell its ice cream, and he opened the first shop in Sendai in spring 1999.
His company, Abbott's Frozen Custard Inc., now runs five such shops and Chida says, ''I want to do a nationwide business from this year.''
For Tanaka, 35, bullying by his seniors at a famous restaurant in Tokyo was motive enough to want to run a place of his own. He went to France after graduating from the Tsuji Culinary Institute. He joined the Hotel de Mikuni after returning home and spent three years there.
''I was informed of neither the business policy nor the scale of sales, so I have decided to run my own restaurant,'' said Tanaka, who is from Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan and is the president of Magrifique Co.
At the age of 27, Tanaka opened his first restaurant in Tokyo's Yotsuya area, called Shanghai Noodle, and now runs nine Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. ''After the bubble economy burst, high-price French restaurants were driven into a tight financial corner one after another. I thought Chinese dishes are best because they attract media attention and are cheap.''
''Fashionable and tasty'' is the term given to his restaurants, which include the Chinese noodle restaurant Komen. ''My dream is to retire at 40 and invest in an able young successor to be picked,'' he said.