Japanese chicken eatery chain enters Myanmar after 30 years of charity work

Yoshihiro Kawatsu, CEO of Torizen Foods Co., speaks in an interview with NNA at his firm’s headquarters in Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture in southwestern Japan on Aug. 29, 2019.

By Yuka Yoshioka

FUKUOKA, NNA – Nearly three decades ago, Yoshihiro Kawatsu, 65, CEO of Torizen Foods Co. of Japan, made his first visit to Myanmar, going around orphanages in areas about two hours’ drive from Yangon to give donations and hand out stationery such as pencils and notebooks.

“Seeing children’s eyes shining despite their severe poverty, I was moved to support them,” Kawatsu said, looking back on the visit, which was realized via an introduction by an executive director of the Kyushu-Myanmar Friendship Association.

Kawatsu has since visited Myanmar every year, while building elementary schools in the country’s poorest neighborhood and donating rice to orphanages through the Fukuoka Host Lions Club, a community service organization of which he is a member.

His constant charity efforts for Myanmar, which he describes as his “lifework,” led to the launch this February in Yangon of a Hakata Hanamidori fancy chicken restaurant run by Torizen Foods based in Fukuoka Prefecture, southwestern Japan.

The restaurant offering specialty poultry from Japan’s southwestern main island of Kyushu has become popular not only with Japanese expatriates but also local people, with its sales steadily increasing.

Elementary school pupils welcome Yoshihiro Kawatsu, CEO of Torizen Foods Co., at a temple in Yangon in January 2014. (Photo courtesy of Torizen Foods)

Behind its opening was the encounter 16-17 years ago with Kyaw Zayya, a Myanmar man who helped Kawatsu call at orphanages during his visit to the country.

“As he showed willing, I invited him to Japan for training at our company’s chicken farm, factory and restaurant, and promoted him to shop manager of a Hakata Hanamidori restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in 2009,” Kawatsu said.

“At present, I entrust him with management of three restaurants in Tokyo, all of them thriving,” the chairman added.

The staff of the three outlets are all from Myanmar. A total of 40 Myanmar nationals are working at the company’s restaurants in Japan, according to Kawatsu.

“Amid a shortage of manpower in the food-service industry, it may be all right to say our company is getting help from Myanmarese people,” he said.

Kawatsu said he decided to open the restaurant in Myanmar because he wanted Kyaw Zayya to “go home a hero.”

With a maximum of 124 seats, the restaurant offers fish dishes and sushi, in addition to its specialty chicken-bone soup with vegetables, made by a Myanmarese kitchen chef with a 14-year apprenticeship in Japan.

Referring to the restaurant’s monthly sales target of 4 million yen ($37,000), Kawatsu said, “It’s not difficult to achieve the goal. “

“I’m delighted to see the proportion of Myanmarese customers has started to increase in recent days though the restaurant has targeted Japanese people residing there plus wealthy locals.”

Hakata Hanamidori chicken hotpot restaurant opens in Yangon in February, 2019.

Torizen Foods plans to open take-out restaurants for Japanese-style fried chicken as the second and ensuing outlets in Myanmar, with the first Hakata Hanamidori being a flagship store, Kawatsu said.

“We’ll go for economies of scale, targeting middle-class locals.”

The company will set up a Myanmar subsidiary tentatively called Torizen Dining soon to begin full-scale business in the country.

Kawatsu expects Japan to accept more foreign workers down the road as the revised immigration control law came into force in April, opening the door wider to foreigners under a new visa system.

“We will also step up our training of employees at the Myanmar restaurant and recruit talent from them in Japan.”

Established in 1987, Torizen Foods started a mail order business for its Hanamidori brand chicken in 1993 and opened its maiden Hakata Hanamidori restaurant the following year.

Its business ranges from poultry raising to processing, distribution, sale and management of restaurants, with 38 eateries in Japan and three overseas – in Yangon in Myanmar, Dalian in China and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

NNA Report