Ashley: First of all, would you tell us about yourself, what you do, and how long you’ve been in Japan?
Andrea: I was one of, if not the first, female ice cream truck driver in New York City before everyone else with college degrees started jumping on and opening food trucks. I drove and worked a Mister Softee truck initially as a summer job after graduating from Juilliard. I loved it so much, I then expanded to operate a fleet of over 20 female drivers over a period of five years.
However, I'm actually a professional flutist! I have two degrees from Juilliard and I also play keyboards and produce music (played on tour with John Legend and I'm on his Once Again album/DVD, produced two tracks for 50 Cent on his Curtis album and for a movie). I've been performing a fair amount since I've been in Japan while working on Mister Softee, although it wasn't my intention. I did my debut show here at the Apple Store in April and I've been gigging around town since then. I just returned from Fukushima, playing a concert at Fukushima Music Hall and giving workshops for Junior High flute students organized by the Tokyo American Club.
I also have my own line of fashionable flute bags called Fluterscooter (my artist name) that I started a year and a half ago; now I have 20 dealers on four continents. In Tokyo they are sold at Yamano Music in Ginza.
I came to Tokyo in February, so I've been here for eight months.
Editor's note: You can read more about Andrea on www.fluterscooter.com.
Ashley: You brought Mister Softee (an American soft cream brand) to Japan this year -- what inspired you to do this?
Andrea: I often came to Japan in the summers for various music performances and festivals, and I thought the kawaii Mister Softee character along with the fun and yummy menu would appeal to the Japanese. Plus, NYC has unfortunately been cracking down on food trucks and I thought it was finally time to realize my Softee dream in Japan! I've tried much of the "soft cream" here and was disappointed that it was not as creamy and sweet as the types I've had in the States. Much of the soft cream here doesn't even have milk in it!
Ashley: What difficulties did you experience bringing Mister Softee to Japan? How did you overcome them?
Andrea: We had to develop a menu unique to Japan, because after some market research, the standard American flavors of Vanilla and Chocolate just aren't enough for Japan! We had the opportunity to open in Omotesando's fashionable Gyre building, co-branding with Japanese luxury sweets brand, Cafe Siry, which has a full coffee, beauty juice, and champagne bar. Many customers enjoy not only the ice cream, but being able to sit down for some coffee and drinks with it as well. And we modified our menu to include original blended soft-serve flavors and special "beauty" ice cream (see below for what this is).
Ashley: From your experience in the US and now Japan, what are the biggest differences you have noticed between the two countries in starting and running a business?
Andrea: In Japan, starting a business as a mobile truck isn't a viable business model as Mister Softee is in the States, so we're starting with storefronts first. I wanted to have a truck right in front of 109 in Shibuya, but there are street and parking restrictions, and mobile trucks that process and sell dairy aren't actually legal anywhere in Tokyo.
Ashley: How open do you think Japan is to entrepreneurs from abroad wanting to set up shop here?
Andrea: I'm lucky to have a business partner who's been here for a long time -- a veteran in the food and beverage business here -- and speaks perfect Japanese. Initially, in NYC, I went to Jetro to ask for their advice on how to start this up. They said it's next to impossible without a Japanese partner. I met my business partner and co-owner of Mister Softee Japan, Warren Wadud (owner of Nirvana NY Indian restaurant in Midtown and brought over Bubby's recently) while I was here on tour last summer by luck. Some NYC musician friends knew him and said he might be interested in helping me make this project a reality, and said to look him up. We've been working at it since February and finally made it a reality!
Ashley: What advice would you offer to someone considering starting a business or franchise in Japan?
Andrea: Do your research. It will take longer than you think! If you can't speak Japanese, find a partner who does.
Ashley: To whet our appetites, what soft cream flavors can we expect to get at Mister Softee in Japan? What’s the most popular flavor so far?
Andrea: We have over 30 special blended soft-serve flavors like American Apple Pie, Black Sesame, Banana/Choco, Baileys/Coffee Bean, and even Wasabi! We offer six soft-serve flavors every week and rotate flavors weekly.
However, we also have a "secret menu", so if you don't see what you want on the menu, just ask! The most popular by far is our Frosted Flakes soft-serve -- it's crushed Frosted Flakes blended into the vanilla ice cream, so it's creamy and crunchy (left image below). American Apple Pie is also a favorite, which is vanilla soft serve blended with apple jam, crushed graham crackers, and cinnamon. One of my favorites is actually a Japanese flavor, Kinako Kuromitsu.
Now, here's the really "Japanese" thing: we have a special ice cream called "Matcha Magic", which is also known as the "Ninja Turtle." We make matcha soft-serve from fresh matcha powder and add Suppon Hachimitsu as a topping, which is turtle collagen honey. So this exclusive menu item is not only oishii but great for your skin.
At this first location in Gyre, we are not a standalone store, but co-branded with Cafe Siry, who produces and sells the special Suppon Hachimitsu. We also do an Avocado Maple soft-serve and a Cactus puree topping over vanilla, which are both on the beauty side of things.
Of course, we have the traditional American menu of the classic Mister Softee chocolate dip and rainbow sprinkle cones. We'll be adding shakes and sundaes to the menu.
Ashley: Many thanks for your time, Andrea, and we wish you and Mister Softee all the best!
You can find Mister Softee at Gyre Building (Omotesando) B1 in Cafe Siry. 5-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001 -- next to Cat Street and Meiji-Jingumae station
Or online via their website, Facebook or Twitter.