John Penny runs 100% Vegan burger bar 'Great Lakes': "I wondered if I was crazy"
Great Lakes (Takadanobaba, Tokyo) seemed to appear out of nowhere. With pictures of their big Vegan burgers quickly spreading through the Vegan community, owner John Penny almost broke the 'Tokyo Vegan Friends Club" Facebook group when he announced their transformation into an ALL VEGAN business!
How are things going? Has business returned after the lockdown ended?
"When we reopened after two months in an uncertain climate with an all-vegan menu and less than a third of our normal seating capacity, we planned for a significant downturn in our business from months past. But then the traffic was so heavy in that first week that we had to close twice because we completely sold out. June ended up being a great month for us, all things considered.
"I feel immense gratitude towards our regular and returning customers, the Tokyo vegan community, and all of our new friends who came in for the first time."
With that said, the road ahead is still difficult. The pandemic and various lockdowns have affected the food supply and related costs. Some of our staple products are unavailable or have greatly increased in price. We're doing the best we can given the circumstances and are just trying to take it one week at a time."
It's been exactly one month since you've announced going 100% vegan. What is the overall feedback? Did you have any unpleasantly surprised meat-burger fans?
"The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It's been a great experience for me to engage with our customers on such an important subject. We've had plenty of meat-eaters come by the shop and enjoy their burgers. We also have several regular customers who aren't vegan, but live in the community and love the food. The feedback from these customers makes it more clear to me than ever that we made the right choice. I hope we continue to change the perceptions of what vegan food is and can be."
Is there a clear difference in number of Japanese and foreign customers? How about their feedback?
"Prior to the immigration ban, I would say the ratio was about 50/50. With no tourists being allowed into the country, our current demographic is made up of predominantly Japanese nationals. Veganism seems to be more mainstream in foreign communities however, so we still have quite foreign residents, both vegan and non-vegan, who visit regularly. Veganism is still in its infancy in Japan and I think as it becomes better understood, non-vegan diners will be more open-minded to trying something unfamiliar. I feel burgers are a great place to start that conversation as they're about as easily approachable and non-threatening as food comes."
A lot of people love Japan, but not a lot end up staying long-term or dare to start their own business here. Has it been challenging?
"I had a reason to stay in Japan that was unrelated to Japan or its culture. Based on my past experiences, opening a new restaurant in Japan was the most straight-forward path to obtaining residency permission. I initially considered franchising a California restaurant I'm involved in, but after researching the costs of doing business in Japan I settled on something small and original. I was inspired by roadside burger stands and small-town taverns on a trip to the Midwest to visit family in 2015.
It's been a challenge every step of the way and continues to be so. Opening a restaurant in any country is usually a bad idea, but the set of challenges unique to immigrating to and doing business in Japan often felt insurmountable. The company was officially established in 2016 and it took over three additional years to open. I remember at one particularly frustrating point in the process I asked my immigration lawyer if many other foreign business owners attempted what I was trying. He told me that many entrepreneurs inquire about the process, but almost none follow through.
I wondered aloud if that meant I was crazy and he politely told me that I was simply very patient."
Assuming that things are going back to "normal" soon, where do you hope Great Lakes to be in 3-5 years?
"If we manage to survive the COVID era, I'd like to address some logistical issues. Almost every item we make is homemade and it takes not only a lot of time to prepare everything, but it takes a lot of storage space which we do not have. We often joke amongst the staff about removing tables to install additional freezers. So a commissary kitchen or a larger second location that could also act as a prep kitchen would dramatically improve the way we do business. I feel like if we make it to a place where opening a second location is sensible, we'd probably go for a slightly different concept. I'd prefer to continue to make veganism accessible by offering different cuisines or new ways to engage with vegan products."
Do you have any off-menu recommendation for us?
"Everything we make can be customized however the guest wants using what we've got available. It was surprising to me that this concept isn't well understood in Japan, so in our current menu re-design we're trying to make it easier for customers to freely express their tastes.
A simple customization that I love is adding pickles to the Ontario Burger, which was my old order at In-N-Out when I still ate meat. The Ontario Burger is our blatant tribute to In-N-Out Burger, including veganizing their legendary spread (which we call "burger sauce" to avoid any dual language confusion).
Adding the burger sauce to the sauce less Michigan Burger massively increases its already high junk food value. This is the hangover recommendation for sure.
Possibly my favorite thing we make in the shop is the tomato jam we put on our signature Superior Burger. After a double shift last month, I made some fries topped with tomato jam, diced marinated onions, and mayo. Don't have a name for it, but it was tasty.
The most common customizations are adding a third patty and grilling the raw onions on the Ontario Burger.
I encourage everyone to get creative!"
Lastly, any sneak preview for the future menu?
"Our standard menu will always stay the same, more or less. We believe in quality over quantity. We are working on some summer specials for when the rainy season ends and the real onslaught of heat begins. You can look forward to some refreshing frozen treats and also a special burger and loaded fries. Because of the aforementioned space issues, these will likely be limited daily offerings. We'll be adding a couple new beers to our beer fridge and maybe a summer-y cocktail or two. Ideally if the overall situation continues to improve, we'll have a new set of specials available seasonally or even monthly depending on how we feel."
A very big thank you to John, for making time to answer some questions, and for you and your staff's tireless efforts providing us with an amazing vegan menu!