When the head of a large overseas restaurant company is impressed by a tasty bagel, unexpected things can happen.
Eltana, a small chain of four wood-fired bagel shops in Seattle, was thinking of expanding locally and along the West Coast.
But apparently fate had other ideas. Now the Eltana concept is set to make an appearance in Japan, of all places.
“It’s curious,” said Stephen Brown, co-founder and president of Seattle-based Eltana. As far as he knows, “there’s no bagel culture in Japan, let alone much of a bread-eating population.”
It wasn’t something Eltana sought out.
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But about seven months ago, the company received an email out of the blue, saying that the president of Osaka-based Fujio Food System — which operates about 700 restaurants in Japan and elsewhere — had eaten at an Eltana store while visiting Seattle and had very much enjoyed both the bagels and the ambience, Brown said.
Masahiro Fujio, president of Fujio, likes bagels and also enjoys trying the local fare when he travels, Natsuko Tokaji, of Fujio’s overseas business planning division, said in an email.
“Always, he enjoys food with [his] five senses and happened to visit Eltana and was fully impressed. He never had such a tasty bagel!” Tokaji said.
Fujio wanted to know if Eltana had thought of expanding into Japan.
“I said we had never considered that. But thank you,” Brown said.
Fujio persisted. The publicly traded company, with more than $300 million in sales, eventually had five representatives visit Seattle to spend time with the Eltana team.
Eltana eventually granted Fujio a license — another thing the bagel chain hadn’t thought of doing so early in its development.
Now the plan is to build the first Eltana stores in Osaka and/or Tokyo, possibly by the end of this year. If it’s well-received, Fujio intends to expand Eltana throughout Japan.
Fujio Food System intends to keep Eltana’s core bagel concept. “We have quite a few bagel shops in Japan,” Tokaji said. “However, wood-fired, hand-made, warm, heartfelt bagels cannot be found here.”
Fujio does intend, however, to make some modifications to better suit Japanese tastes, Tokaji said.
Launched in 2010 by Brown and Daniel Levin, Eltana has stores in Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, on Stone Way between Wallingford and Fremont, and in the Seattle Center Armory.
Brown declined to disclose sales and profit figures for the privately owned company, but said its revenues are a few million dollars a year and that it is “moderately profitable.”
In the U.S., he said, Eltana plans to expand along the West Coast. In the Puget Sound area, the company hopes to open 15 stores, including in Ballard and West Seattle and on the Eastside. It’s also thinking of opening a site in Los Angeles.