June 14, 2023
Café Nado: Yokohama’s Newest Korean Dessert Spot
After spending most of his adult life in Japan and Australia, when Yongkyu Kwon decided to settle down in Japan with his family, he knew that he wanted to bring with him a part of his home country, South Korea.
He always knew that he wanted to do something in the food and beverage industry, and after running a ramen restaurant down under, he decided that opening his own place in Japan would be the way to go. But he couldn’t do it alone.
Filled with determination to make this dream a reality, Kwon started work at a Chinese restaurant in Yokohama. That’s where he met Masayuki Takemoto, his future business partner. Over the years working side by side, Kwon started to notice that Takemoto had similar tastes to him, and got a sense that he would be able to trust him to create their new menu together. So, with the idea of bringing Korean flavors to Japan, the two packed up and began their journey to open their Korean sweet café, Nado.
One of the first steps of that journey was to begin mapping out the menu. Kwon did this by researching trends and figuring out what was currently popular in South Korea, trawling through TikTok, Instagram and Naver, then working with Takemoto on recreating them.
But an essential part of the menu creation process was for Japan-born Takemoto to taste authentic Korean food, so the two of them traveled to South Korea to do just that. Kwon highlighted the importance of the trip, stating, “I wanted him to experience the flavors and see how food is made in South Korea. That was essential. I also wanted to get a Japanese perspective of that food.”
The learning didn’t stop there. Once the pair returned to Japan, they set about designing the interior, which required a lot of their own mental and physical legwork.
With a rough idea in mind, Kwon used Pinterest to gather inspiration for the interior design, settling on a theme of grey and white. This was inspired by the South Korean aesthetic, where the industrial and simple look is on trend. They ordered items online and called in professionals when needed but, for the most part, worked together putting up shelves and lights to bring their idea to life.
Once everything was together, it was clear that, though chic, the grey and white looked a little lifeless, so they introduced a pop of color with some art by an American artist, KAWZ, and a projector screen playing K-pop to liven things up.
Their biggest learning point? Budget wisely. While the pair had worked hard to keep costs down and stick to their budget, there were issues and unexpected costs along the way that ended up with them spending around 1.5x their initial number. Kwon strongly recommends for anyone starting a restaurant to have double their expected funds ready, just in case.
The South Korean Boom
Once it was time to open, it helped that Japan is no stranger to South Korean culture or cuisine. Speaking on its popularity, Kwon said “South Korean culture is aesthetically pleasing. It’s vibrant and stands out. And I think that during the pandemic, people were using social media a lot, which gave it a platform to spread even more easily. Before COVID-19, K-pop for example had a large but niche following, but now it has become much more mainstream.”
One of the famous spots to get your Korean culture fix in Japan is in Tokyo’s unofficial Korea Town, Shin-Okubo. But the pair were unsatisfied with the quality of food in the area, and wanted to bring Korean flavors to Yokohama, where they are in shorter supply. “Summer is starting up, and in Korea that means it’s time for ‘Patibingsu,’ which is shaved ice. We want to serve that kind of food that people might be familiar with but can’t find easily in Yokohama.”
But for now, the café’s highlights are their (delicious) croffles and Dalgona coffee. You might have seen Dalgona coffee making the rounds on Instagram a little while back, but Kwon didn’t feel the trend was authentic Dalgona, so he worked with Takemoto to adjust the drink to have the authentic honeycomb flavor.
As for the croffles, this choice was inspired by a macro trend from during the pandemic, where a lot of people in South Korea started making café-inspired food at home using waffle irons. Running with that idea, the pair have created a selection of croffles, including the indulgent Cookies & Cream Croffle which I had the pleasure of trying out for myself.
Suffice it to say, both the croffle and the Dalgona coffee are certainly worth the trip if you’re in Yokohama’s Chinatown area. Takemoto told me how South Koreans value good texture in their food, which is reflected by the crunch, creaminess, and light and airy texture of the croffle, as well as the creamy and crunchy honeycomb-topped Dalgona coffee.
Evolving and Advising
With just over a month of running Nado under their belts, Kwon and Takemoto have already learnt a lot and are ready to continue to grow and learn as their business expands. Already pivoting and tailoring their menu to suit their customers, Nado has adjusted the sweetness of their croffles, added a projector screen to run K-Pop hits, and plans to introduce more savory lunch items to the menu.
One of the biggest takeaways from their experience – and one reason that the pair work so well – lies in the importance of understanding your audience. “A lot of people who want to start a restaurant with their home country’s cuisine think that the ‘authentic’ version will sell the best. But it’s all about balance. We think about how much to adjust to Japanese tastes, and how much to stay true to the original.” While Kwon has the feel for authentic Korean flavors, Takemoto has the Japanese perspective to help make the dishes more accessible, giving the café a good balance.
So, whether you’re intrigued by the pair’s dynamics behind the counter, want to engulf yourself in South Korean aesthetic, or want to have one of the tastiest waffles in Yokohama (honestly, I don’t think I can go back to regular waffles now), Nado is sure to hit the spot.