The Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto have an old-fashioned rivalry unlike anything we see in the US, more intense than Noo Yawk v. Beantown, more nuanced than Tinseltown v. Frisco. Stephen Brown grew up in Toronto but attended McGill in Montreal, which introduced him to Montreal's surpassing gift to North American cuisine: the bagel. Hand-rolled, dense, chewy. An entrepreneur at heart, Brown does nothing by accident. By the time he graduated, he had decided that one day, when the time was right, he would open a bagel bakery and deli
Lots of shops offer what Brown calls BSOs, bagel-shaped objects, but they're not bagels. "A hole and a soul" is Eltana's bagel. Seven varieties, from plain to salted to "everything."
What most startups lack, Brown posits, isn't customers but a mechanism for customer engagement. So he gave his bakery an offbeat name, Eltana. It sounds vaguely Hebrew (not a bad thing, given the product's ethnic background), but it's not a real Hebrew word.
The point of the name, the only point, is that customers will ask what it means. And what the question creates is an opportunity for the staff to engage with the customers. (There's no sign pointing to the restrooms, either.) Brown and his managers hire new employees based on their candor and generosity of spirit in addition to standard abilities to deal efficiently with a diversity of job duties. Answering the same question a dozen times a day? Shouldn't be a problem. "If it were a real word, it would mean something like God's Bread Basket."
Then, about seven months ago, Brown received an email out of the blue from Natsuko Tokaji, head of the overseas business planning division of Fujio Food System, a giant Japanese chain (more than 700 restaurants, $300 million in sales). Tokaji said the company president had eaten at an Eltana store while visiting Seattle and had very much enjoyed both the bagels and the ambience. How did Brown feel about an expansion into Japan?
Brown hadn't considered expansion to Asia. He had a commissary and four outlets. A fifth was under consideration. The long-term plan was a dozen stores.
He hadn't counted on Japanese tenacity. Next thing Brown knew, Fujio had sent five executives to Seattle to look over his operation. They ended up making him an offer he couldn't refuse: a licensing deal.
Fujio's plan is to build the first Eltana stores in Osaka (or Tokyo), possibly by the end of this year. If they are well-received, Fujio intends to expand Eltana throughout Japan.
While Fujio Food System intends to keep Eltana's core bagel concept, it intends to make some modifications to better suit Japanese tastes, Tokaji said.
"It's curious," Brown said. "There's no bagel culture in Japan, let alone much of a bread-eating population." Seems that's about to change.