November 19, 2009
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2009
No one can accuse Lauren Shannon of slacking. In addition to serving as president of the Tokyo-based Sapphire Restaurant Management Group, Shannon is chairwoman of Democrats Abroad Japan, founder of Tokyo Writer’s Salon, vice-president of For Empowering Women (FEW), and a start-up member of Tokyo Hacker Space. Until recently, the Pennsylvania native and 12-year Japan resident was also the general manager at Fujimamas, the late, much-lamented restaurant in Harajuku. With her former Fujumamas staff, she’s just opened Kimono Wine Bar in Nishi-Azabu.
How did you get involved in the food industry?
Like most people in the business, I’ve worked around restaurants since my first job in high school—but I didn’t start out with the intention of running a food and beverage company. I was a teacher in a small progressive school in Philadelphia, came to Japan and, after a stint teaching English, I worked in a wine importing and events company. I then became general manager of Roti restaurant in Roppongi (www.roti.jp/en), and for the last six years was GM of Fujimamas. Long and winding path…
Tell us about your time at Fujimamas.
I was a customer and friend of the owners, Mark and Lisa Vann, for years before I started working there in 2003. After my time at Roti, I really wanted the challenge of running a larger place. I started out doing events, promotion, community building and marketing. As Mark and Lisa began to expand into Hawaii, I took over the duties of general manager. And three years ago, when they moved to the Big Island full-time, I became the honcho.
Fujimamas was a special place. It was 11 years old when it closed and occupied an amazing space—one of the few old Japanese-style buildings left in the neighborhood. The design and renovation of the 60-year-old building was pretty groundbreaking for Tokyo 11 years ago. It was a great place to meet, work with, and serve international Tokyoites and internationally minded Japanese. The staff was amazing, the food creative, and the customers supportive, but in the end Fujimamas suffered in the recession and had to close under the burden of rent that had reached a sky-high level—nearly ¥6 million a month. That was simply not sustainable in the current economy.
What are you up to these days?
With the closing of Fujimamas and our staff scattering all over the city, the catering manager, head chef, myself and a friend started up SRMG. Right now, our main business is a full-service catering company, called To the Moon and Back, plus various other side projects as we consider re-opening a Fujimamas sometime in 2010. I am most excited by the chance to serve our former Fujimamas catering customers and brand new customers. We are doing lunches, dinners, canapés, seminars—a little bit of everything, and it’s all so much fun. New company but same great food!
Tell us about Kimono Wine Bar.
The catering business is our main love and passion right now, but we also had an amazing chance to do a dual-use project making a small wine bar on Nisseki Dori. Called Kimono Wine Bar, it is in a co-location with the bakery Notting Hill Cakes and supported by the owner, Mark Peterson. The space takes its inspiration from ’30s art deco Japan. Basically, it is a cake shop by day and then we do this dramatic atmosphere change and turn it into a wine bar at night. We serve international tapas and New World wines, plus classic and original cocktails and craft beer. My Hungarian bartender is terrific—besides the wine, I love his cocktails. This season, we have this sublime signature drink called the Mandarin, with sake, citron and honey. Dangerously delicious.
We also do wine tastings, wine classes, theme nights, book launches, live music—all in a very intimate, 24-seat, nonsmoking space in a little hidden corner between Roppongi and Shibuya.
You’re also involved in Democrats Abroad. Last November must have been an exciting time…
Very, very exciting. It was extremely rewarding and lots of hard work. Basically, I was involved in helping Democrats Abroad Japan register voters and make sure Americans could cast their ballots in the primary and general elections. I was elected as a DNC member and attended the Democratic convention and the presidential inauguration. It was life changing.
What are some of your favorite places to hang out in Tokyo?
I have lots of loves in Tokyo. For high tea, I like the lobby lounge at the Ritz (www.ritzcarlton.com/tokyo), and I still love the food at Roti. The cupcakes at Notting Hill are luscious (www.nottinghillcakes.com). In my little neighborhood in Nakame, I like Mother Esta for organic meat and veggie dishes (www.mother-esta.com). There’s a tiny little place called Fabrique that’s stellar (www.fabrique.in), and another little bistro-type space along the Meguro River called Huit (www.ctn139.com/shop_huit.html). My favorite Thai food is Kaffir Lime (6-1-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku), around the corner from the former Fujimamas building—it is still hard for me to go back over there, though. Too sad.
Kimono Wine Bar: 4-18-20 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5464-3788. Open Tue-Thu 7pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 7pm-1:30am, closed Sun-Mon. Nearest stn: Shibuya, Roppongi or Hiroo. Twitter: @kimonowinebar. www.kimonowinebar.com. For more information about To the Moon and Back, call 03-6438-1685 or see www.tothemoonandback.jp.