August 30, 2023

Authenticity is your core strength – Fujin Tree Group Founder Jay Wu talks about taking local brands overseas

If you are taking a stroll through the bustling Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, you might come across Fujin Tree – Taiwanese Cuisine & Champagne, a restaurant showcasing a brilliant fusion of Taiwanese delicacies with a touch of French elegance.

Meanwhile, 2,000 kilometers away in Taipei, the super-popular Tokyo hamburger steak brand Hikiniku To Come has recently opened its first international flagship store. Demand is so high that customers line up outside from the early hours, even when it’s raining.

What connects these two brands is that they were both elevated to overseas success by the same person, Fujin Tree Group Founder Jay Wu. Seated in a Taipei café that’s a part of his business group (and located on Fujin Street, his company’s namesake), Wu took us through his unique entrepreneurial journey.

It turns out Wu’s trajectory in bridging Japanese culture and that of his home country of Taiwan was set well before he got into the restaurant business. 

In 2010, he introduced Beams, a leading Japanese fashion brand, to Taiwan. While the market for this particularly trendy style of clothing appeared small, Wu identified a dedicated local community of Beams enthusiasts on the then still-nascent Facebook. After inviting the brand to Taiwan for a pop-up event, they sold out their inventory in just three days, leading to a full-fledged collaboration and the opening of Beams’ first store in Taipei.

In 2012, by which time Wu was already cooperating with multiple Japanese fashion companies, he founded the Fujin Tree Group. Among his first goals was doing for Taiwanese food what he had done for Japanese fashion.  

“No one in the world has clearly defined what Taiwanese cuisine is,” says Wu, whose hairstyle and fashion sense all take inspiration from his second home of Japan. “But just because no one has done it doesn’t mean there’s no market. I knew it might be a huge opportunity.”

It was with this belief that Wu launched Fujin Tree – Taiwanese Cuisine & Champagne in late 2014 in Taipei, aiming to debunk the stereotype that Taiwanese food is limited to braised pork rice and bubble tea.

He accomplished this in multiple ways – first, he created a menu not only offering a modern twist on traditional flavors but also introducing champagne pairing. Furthermore, most traditional Taiwanese restaurants don’t pay much attention to interior design, presentation, or even have English menus, making it hard for foreign tourists to properly experience. Wu insisted on integrating nature into the dining ambiance, using large windows, green plants, and natural lighting to break away from the unadorned and humble image of traditional Taiwanese eateries.

Wu’s refined approach to Taiwanese dining has propelled Fujin Tree Taiwanese Cuisine & Champagne into the limelight, winning it a Michelin star for three consecutive years. It was also what allowed him to achieve success with the restaurant’s Tokyo branch, which opened doors in 2019. 

“Have you seen queues for Taiwanese food in Tokyo?” Wu asks. “Ours is the only restaurant that has one.” 

As Wu explains, however, making a mark in the international market was not nearly as straightforward as it seems. He shared with us three strategies any local restaurant brand should adopt when expanding into an overseas market.

Strategy 1: Find the right local partners to minimize error and expedite learning

As Wu emphasizes, opening a restaurant in a country like Japan can be especially difficult. Japan’s highly conservative nature, close attention to detail, and linguistic and cultural barriers, leave precious room for error for a new brand entering the market. That’s why finding the right local partners is crucial from the get-go.

Wu therefore opted to form a joint venture with a Japanese partner when first expanding into Japan. By learning from local expertise, he explains, he was able to quickly adapt to an unfamiliar environment, ensuring everything from costs, specifics, food presentation, cleanliness, to employee training was up to Japanese standards.

Strategy 2: Maintain authenticity – “Being unaltered is the greatest strength”

Wu explains that when entering a new market, a restaurateur always faces the question of remaining 100% authentic or adapting to local tastes, which is what many overseas brands do in Japan. Despite warnings from peers, Wu insisted on staying true to the native Taiwanese flavors of his dishes.

“Since we are entering a new market, why do the same thing as others?” Wu expresses. “We’re for a niche audience, not the masses. So there is no need to change that which is our core strength.”

Wu also applied this principle when convincing Hikiniku To Come to expand to the Taiwan market, ensuring his staff were trained in Japan and that all rice used in the dishes came from Japan. This meticulous attention to detail led to a hamburger steak craze in Taiwan, despite prices being nearly double those in Japan. 

Strategy 3: Niche markets have massive potential when targeted correctly

Jay Wu is an entrepreneur who believes in the power of niche markets. He argues that brands who can effectively communicate with those audiences can sometimes unlock exponential business opportunities.

“The process was challenging,” he shares. “During some of the harder years, we had to close 70% of our storefronts due to expanding too quickly. But we never stopped believing in ourselves. Once one person believes in you, then another, and another, things will start to fall into place.”

The Fujin Tree Group now has eight lifestyle brands spanning fashion, food, and accessories, aiming to offer enriched experiences to consumers. With a decade of entrepreneurial experience behind him, Wu hasn’t lost the spark for bridging cultures and is currently on the lookout for his next such venture.

“I still want to bring the world to Taiwan and take Taiwan to the world.”

Key takeaways:

  1. Make sure to find the right local partners when entering an overseas market. This will help to decrease the number of missteps along with speed up your understanding of the culture.   
  2. When you’re aiming for a niche audience who loves your product, don’t dilute its authenticity. 
  3. Niches can also hold tremendous business potential if communicated effectively.

This article has been contributed to AsiaTechDaily.

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