Gen Saito

Gen Saito

Pronto’s marketing whiz introduces authentic Italian cafés to Japan


Originally published on on December 2009

Courtesy of Révérence

Photo by Sarah Noorbakhsh

Transplanting Italian café culture to Japan is a big challenge, but one that Gen Saito relishes. Saito took on his job as director of marketing, planning and new business development for Pronto Corporation two years ago. In a market dominated by big chains like Starbucks, Tully’s and traditional Japanese kissaten, he and his team have managed to create a niche for the relatively new brand of Espressamente Illy.

“The name is hard to pronounce, even for Japanese,” admits Saito, who refers to the brand as just Illy. “We don’t intend to become a giant coffee chain like Starbucks. Our strategy is to position Espressamente as a ‘next-generation café.’ For the time being, we will concentrate on Tokyo, and perhaps Osaka, until people start recognizing what our brand is.”

Saito is certainly the man to make it happen. He has spent most of his working career with Suntory (which owns Pronto), including eight years in Australia and New Zealand. After a stint at McDonald’s, he rejoined the company in 2007.

“It was hard to readjust to Japanese corporate culture,” he says. Yet Pronto, which operates some 200 outlets, has always been at the forefront of the coffee business in Japan. “The concept of a café and bar was new when Pronto started it 20 years ago.”

The biggest challenge for Espressamente Illy, which hails from Trieste, is getting Japanese consumers to understand and accept the concept of Italian coffee-drinking culture. The brand already seems well on its way, with 17 shops in Tokyo and Osaka.

“It is a genuine Italian café and bar,” Saito says. “Consumers come in for five to ten minutes and have a quick shot of espresso, while standing up, and then go. Many Japanese people who don’t know much about us come in expecting something like Starbucks, and sometimes they complain that the coffee cup is too small. We explain this is the genuine Italian coffee drinking style. Of course, some of those customers never come back. But I think many enjoy the new experience of drinking coffee.”

Finding the right location is another challenge. Pronto has a store development team that focuses on scouting locations. Saito says that when new buildings go up, there is always a lot of competition among the coffee chains to get into the lobbies.

“The entrance to a big office building is one of the ideal spots because people are always coming and going,” he explains. “Traffic is the most important factor, which is why we have set up outlets at terminal stations and airports. From a financial point of view, it is better, too, because with a small counter unit, your investment cost isn’t as high. Starbucks and Tully’s don’t have our type of format, and they require a certain amount of space to accommodate tables and chairs. We don’t require a closed space.”

Courtesy of Espressamente Illy

Courtesy of Espressamente Illy

Naturally, the Espressamente Illy staff have to be qualified baristas.

“At first, we took them to Italy for training, but now we do in-house training,” says Saito. “Store experience is important for all staff, and I spend some time each year behind the counter, serving customers. I’m not a qualified barista but I can serve a decent espresso.”

The drinks served at Espressamente Illy in Japan are the same as in Italy, but there are some variations in the food menu to cater to local tastes.

“Pasta is important here,” says Saito. “In Italy, it may be just an appetizer. In Japan, it is often the main meal for lunch, especially for young women. So we offer a variety of pasta. All the food is prepared at each outlet, which makes us different from other coffee chains.” Most of the stores are open from 7am until 11pm, and like the Pronto bars, Espressamente Illy serves alcohol, with sparkling wine a popular drink from happy hour onward.

Saito—who says he drinks six or seven cups of coffee a day—visits competitors occasionally to see what they are doing.

“Generally, though, I am in my office 80 percent of the time because I am also looking after menu development for the entire company, logistics and the promotional side of the business. We haven’t done any advertising for Illy yet because the stores themselves are the best ad.”

Overall, Saito says Pronto is doing well, considering how competitive the industry is in Japan.

“It is a huge and very diversified market,” he says. “I think it’s flattening out because there are coffee shops and cafés everywhere you look. The niche market is growing and new-generation cafés like Espressamente Illy are in a good position right now.”

Espressamente Illy locations include Roppongi Hills, Shin-Marunouchi Bldg, Akasaka Biz Tower and Tokyo station. See for details (Japanese).

Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today