By Peter Saunders
When David Minnett became president and CEO of Edo Japan in 2016, he was quite familiar with the Teppanyaki-style food-service brand’s success in Western Canada, but saw a further opportunity to lead it through another phase of growth.
“My mandate was to take an Alberta-based franchise system and turn into a national success story,” he says. “The brand was already on-trend and had long-term potential, as long as we could ensure our menu offerings were appealing to ‘food-forward’ millennials.”
From the mall to the streets
Reverend Susumu Ikuta founded Edo Japan in 1979, opening the first location in Calgary’s Southcentre Mall. He had spotted an opportunity to make Japan’s traditional Teppanyaki cooking style—which uses an iron griddle, suitable for grilling small ingredients together—more accessible to Canadian customers, by building counters in food courts in suburban shopping malls.
“The brand was really born in food courts,” says Minnett.
In 1981, with Edo Japan reaching Edmonton for the first time with a corporate location at Heritage Mall, Ikuta established the Calgary Buddhist Temple. To help provide financial support for this facility and to share his already-successful business opportunity with recent immigrants, he began franchising Edo Japan in 1986. As the chain expanded from there, sales grew to the millions of dollars and locations spread across not only Alberta, but also British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
In 1999, Ikuta was appointed bishop of the Buddhist Churches of Canada. He stepped away from his franchise business and hired Tom Donaldson as CEO.
Finally, in 2001, when Ikuta wanted to retire, he sold the entire business to Donaldson, who then began his own process of expanding the concept. The chain’s first streetfront location, for example, opened in 2002 and sushi was added to the menu in 2006.
In 2011, when Edo Japan opened its milestone 100th location at Edmonton’s Namao Centre, Donaldson won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the hospitality and tourism division. He remained in charge of the franchise system until he retired in 2016.
Standing out in the market
While Asian food-service franchises are now much more common across Canada than they were in the 1970s and ’80s, Edo Japan’s menu continues to set it apart in the market.
“Not only is it a healthier alternative to pizza or burgers, but our traditional Teppanyaki grill in full view at 450 F provides a bit of ‘theatre’ for our guests,” says Minnett. “We prepare our meals in the moment and can customize orders for their tastes and preferences. That value has earned us a very loyal following.”
Franchisees, meanwhile, have been drawn to Edo Japan’s reasonable investment of time and money, compared to other concepts. Sales are relatively evenly split between lunch and dinner and between dine-in and takeout orders.
“Edo Japan locations are typically open at 11 a.m. and close by 10 p.m., never 24 hours a day, so our franchisees can enjoy a more balanced lifestyle,” Minett explains, “and the cost for a new buildout and training is around $500,000.”
As a testament to the profitability of the concept in terms of return on investment (ROI), many Edo Japan franchisees have gone multi-unit—and some have expressed an interest in opening even more locations.