When friends suggested that she open up a restaurant in Tokyo, artist-turned-business owner Traci Consoli’s answer went a little something like this: “F***k no.”
But almost sixteen years and three locations later her Roppongi-based creative hangout the Pink Cow is a bona fide Tokyo institution. You’ve probably been or know someone who has; parties there are the stuff of legend and its bright, eclectic space, modeled after Traci’s living room and inspired by her California roots, has provided an artistic hub for the city’s creative community since it all began back in 2000.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. One that started with no plan, no experience and no money. But through evictions and earthquakes, rejections and relocations, plus a fair few dodgy customers, Traci has managed to keep her restaurant business going and growing. In a city with over 160,000 restaurants where bankruptcies are common (the restaurant at at the end of my street seems to change every other month), how has she managed to do it?
“I’m very hard-headed, very determined” she says. “My father always did tell me I liked to do things the hard way!” she laughs.
Married to a Japanese rock star and working as an artist, Traci would regularly invite fellow artists and musicians living in the city round to her place to share her authentic California home-cooking. At the time there wasn’t really anywhere for people to get together and be creative. Slowly her living room transformed into a kind of artisitc community center and bigger and bigger groups of people were turning up at her door to be a part of it.
“People would come to parties at my house and I would cook for them, and they would tell me I should open a restaurant instead of just letting them drink all my booze,” she says.
Eventually after ten years she came to a crossroads; go back to her native America to do a post-grad or stay in Japan and expand her living room into a legitimate restaurant.
“I was thinking about going back to school but I realised it wasn’t academia in and of itself that was missing for me, it was everything surrounding academia. I wanted the learning, the passion for creating something more, and most of all the community. ”
So she teamed up with business partner Naoya, and together they started a small catering business based out of their art and design studio. Friends then offered their bar in a tiny Shimokitazawa basement on the weekends while Traci looked for a more permanent space.
“I knocked on every door of every disused space across the city. I would try and get introduced to the owner to see if they would let us rent from them even though we had no money and no idea what we were doing. Doors were constantly getting slammed in my face. It took three years but eventually we found someone who was willing to give us a chance. They deferred our rent for three months and we set up our first Pink Cow.”
It’s this dogged determination, “I knocked on a lot of doors,” laughs Traci, combined with an intense work ethic and unshakeable positivity, that kept the Pink Cow afloat during the difficult early years of opening a restaurant where the risk of failure runs high (60% of restaurants close down within their first year).
Traci spent every waking hour in the Pink Cow, developing the business plan, “we kind of figured it out as we went along”, she says, cooking the food before current chef Andy took over, and wooing customers at the bar.
“I remember this group of Japanese people came in. Naoya was too shy to go over so it was up to me to make sure they were having a good time. I didn’t speak good Japanese back then but I wanted them to feel like they were at home, even in this foreign bar. So I just went right over, sat down, and anyway, we ended up having a great time.”
Talking to her it seems that a lot of the Pink Cow’s success has to do with Traci herself. Friendly, open and effervescent, she manages to put you at ease in seconds. Everyone she meets is treated with the same warmth and respect and she’s incredibly generous with her time, paying attention to each person who comes in. It explains why her customers are so loyal, following the Pink Cow as it moved to different locations across Tokyo.
“When the earthquake hit in 2011, we faced a really tough decision. A lot of restaurants around us were shutting down, staff and friends were going back home and we lost a lot of customers.”
It was double or quits. So with the help of the Pink Cow community, they packed up and moved to their current space in the basement of the ROI building just down the road from Tokyo Tower. Though Roppongi was never Traci’s first choice, she knew it made sense to take the opportunity to move to a better location where a large portion of her target customer base lived and worked.
Rebuilding the restaurant during such a turbulent time for Japan taught her valuable lessons about business and marketing strategy, and the importance of networking in your industry.
“I would definitely say that you should try to get as much experience as possible in advance. Go to restaurants, talk to owners, talk to staff and customers. Do your research. Take time to learn what other people are doing and what approaches work well. The restaurant business is one of the hardest to get into; it needs a lot of knowledge and a lot of planning to make it work.”
Lessons learned Traci says she would do it differently, dedicating time to making connections with suppliers and other restaurant owners in the business before starting out.
“95% of my work is on the computer. Nowadays, I’m mostly doing things behind the scenes. If you think you’re only going to be hanging out drinking with the customers, think again. It ain’t always like that, I can tell you!”
Above all, she recommends raising enough capital before setting out. “How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a big one!” she says. For Traci and Naoya it’s been a constant financial battle, so she believes it’s important to do it for the love not money.
“Make sure you have solid financing before and know that this is going to be your life 24/7. You have to be passionate, enthusiastic and able to handle anything that comes your way. It’s very time-intensive and strategy-driven.”
Does Traci wish she’d had gone back home to study instead? “I’ve been having the best experiences with people coming together and creating things for more than a decade. That’s why I started the Pink Cow in the first place – I wanted to provide a home, a non-judgemental space for people to come, be themselves and explore their creative sides. We’ve seen people get married, babies born, people move away, and new people come in. We’ve hosted some amazing events. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Looking to the future, Traci is hoping that more people keep coming to the Pink Cow to share ideas and make connections in an age when so many of us are glued to our smartphones.
“Look around. Tokyo is full of creative people but as a city it’s very disjointed. We’re busy with the internet, constantly connected but not really connected. When we host events at the Pink Cow, the energy is incredible and people are often surprised at how creative they can be in a shared environment.”
Traci is hoping to build on the Pink Cow’s growing potential as a music venue, bringing in more Japanese and international musicians to perform as well as hang out with locals;
“We do tons of live music and usually band members are really friendly with the customers.”
She also wants to encourage people to host parties, using their own bands, themes and even menus. Currently, as part of their Pink Cow party plan, customers can request dishes and Andy will create a tailor-made menu out of it.
“It’s hard work for us but this is the kind of open, communal place we want to be,” she says.
As for Traci, she’s more determined than ever to make the Pink Cow a success.
“I’m an all or nothing kind of gal. Keep going, keep rolling,” she grins. After she gives me a big hug and tells me to come back and hang out soon. I think I will.