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Chef Hiro Saito Of Kirari West and Confections KW On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food…

Chef Hiro Saito Of Kirari West and Confections KW On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Great inventions start from imagination. Of course, actions must follow imagining, but everything starts there. In other words, if you can’t imagine, you can’t start the process of making it happen.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hiro Saito.

Chef Hiro Saito is a renowned gluten-free chef with over 20 years of experience cooking with rice flour. He is the CEO and founder of two restaurants and bakeshops — Kirari West and Confections KW — both located in Redondo Beach, California.

Kirari West is a family-owned bakeshop that originated in Japan with the concept of creating delicious pastries from locally grown high-quality rice flour instead of wheat. Upon moving to the United States, Chef Hiro was astounded to see so many people suffering from gluten intolerance and even more befuddled by the lack of food options for them.

Inspired to fill the gap and with decades of culinary expertise, Chef Hiro set out to open restaurants that would incorporate high artistry into gluten-free creations that are both nutritious and delicious for those who can’t have wheat, and for those who simply enjoy amazing food.

Chef Hiro believes that everyone should have access to great food, regardless of dietary restrictions, and his bakeshops offer delectable treats for people with and without gluten sensitivities. Chef Hiro’s mission is to bring joy through food to as many people as possible while making everyone feel included in the process.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us about your childhood?

I was born and raised in Japan, one of those kids who was totally fascinated with American culture. I grew up listening to American music and watching American movies. My dad owns several small successful businesses in Japan, including a few restaurants so I started working at one when I was 16 just to get some experience and earn extra cash. I absolutely hated it. It was simultaneously stressful and boring, and I just despised serving customers. I remember thinking that working in a restaurant is the last thing I would ever want to do when I grew up.

During my senior year in high school, I had to decide whether I would go to college or start looking for a job, so I chose the former and headed to America. My parents were stunned by the decision, but it had been my lifelong dream to live in the U.S. To this day, I am hugely thankful to my parents for being so understanding and supportive of a naïve and maybe a bit crazy 17-year-old kid with little experience but big dreams.

Fast forward more than a quarter-century later at age 45 and I’m still working in a restaurant, but now I own it and I’m loving life. I’ve definitely found my passion and feel a strong commitment to making a difference for people through my products.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food or beverage brand you are leading?

Six months into the business, I was struggling to get enough sales to stay afloat. It was urgent that I come up with some additional items to bring in more customers. The clock was ticking on the store’s bank account. Kirari West had started as just a sweet shop, so we only had cakes and pastries. I remember one day an employee told me that many customers were asking if we have gluten-free bread, and that she noticed customers often come in very hungry looking for a meal. That was my first “ah ha” moment. I realized that bread and meals were essential foods that many gluten-free people were looking for and not just sweets. I decided to start baking gluten-free bread regularly to provide something additional our customers could enjoy daily.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For the first couple years after opening Kirari West, it was a struggle just to get more customers in the door. Financially, I only had a few more months of running capital in the bank so I had to keep working on ways to bring in more people. I was spending hours coming up with new products and, at the time, there was a cupcake trend, so a lightbulb went on and I got to baking.

I was working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week in the kitchen with only one other employee and

was completely exhausted. I worked to come up with a gluten-free cupcake recipe but when they were done, they looked and tasted more like muffins. They didn’t look quite right, but they were delicious. Every sale helps so I decided to put them out and pitch them as muffins. They not only sold out quickly that very first day, but our muffins are now one of our most popular items. The lesson I learned from that is to be flexible because accidents and mistakes can turn into something great! Also, if you’re not sure, let your audience judge — they will always let you know if you’ve got a hit or a miss.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I have made plenty of mistakes myself so I can speak from my own experience. People tend to make the process too complicated when it comes to creating products. I’ve seen many chefs and business owners make the same mistake. It is natural for someone to want to be very detailed and a perfectionist to achieve their creation, but the reality is the more you make things complicated, the better chance mistakes can happen, which then can lead to dissatisfied consumers. Once you have an idea of your products, it is very important for you to keep searching for the simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to make them.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend they take?

I think the first step would be to gauge your excitement level. Your emotions should not drive your business, but at the beginning stage of creating a product, you should be the biggest champion of it. If you don’t believe in it, your customers certainly won’t either.

The second step would be to check how realistic your product is, including analyzing how reasonable it is to produce. This step is opposite from the first step. You will be more of a devil’s advocate while asking yourself questions such as, “Can I really do this?” “What are the obstacles?” and “How much money do I need to make this happen?”

Then, if you still believe this product is worth your effort, make the actual product and have as many of your friends and family to try it. Then start to share it with strangers, and you’ll begin to have a pretty good idea of your market feasibility and next steps.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle with taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

People can dream about a big achievement, get excited, and be passionate about it. And when it’s just an idea, it’s easy but the reality of putting into action what’s in your head is so much more difficult. As soon as you try, you’ll immediately start facing obstacles. That’s when most people quit. My advice is to take your time and focus on each small step instead of aiming for the ultimate goal. For instance, thinking about running a 26-mile marathon sounds insanely difficult and might make you quit trying before you’re even started. However, if you think of it as four sections of six miles plus a bonus mile, it’s easier to visualize, execute and complete.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

I’m a big believer in teamwork so, yes, I recommend hiring a consultant if that can make your products better. One of the important lessons that I have learned from running a company is that you can’t do everything on your own, nor does every idea have to come from you. If you can outsource some services that will make your business better, I’d recommend doing it. There are many different talents out there who can contribute a skillset that you may not have. If your money allows, why not try?

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Choosing one of these approaches depends on a few factors, including how fast and big you want to grow, how much control you want to have, and how much risk you can take on your own. When I started my business, I wanted to have control over every small detail and decision, so I did not source funds from investors but one of the downsides to this approach is it can slow growth because of the limitation of cash flow. That said, I wasn’t in a rush, and wanted to succeed on my terms in my own restaurant. My style has always been starting small and growing big, so it’s been working out well for me.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I’m not an expert in this area so I can’t share much but I will say that when you’re trying to find ingredients, always be on the lookout for the best. In business, you need to have lots of relationships with vendors and always explore the best tools of your trade, whatever they may be.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why?

1. Imagination

Great inventions start from imagination. Of course, actions must follow imagining, but everything starts there. In other words, if you can’t imagine, you can’t start the process of making it happen.

This step is free and fun. I always enjoy daydreaming to come up with my next product.

2. Long-lasting Concept

I’m not a big fan of trends because they all eventually fade. Great products should last long. Coming up with a concept that people can enjoy for years is a must. If you’re going to dedicate your time to it, make sure it has some staying power for you, too.

3. Great Team of Individuals

We are selling food but at the end of the day, we are in the people business rather than the food business. People make the food. People serve the food. And people buy and enjoy the food.

Creating a great team that believes in your products is a must for running a successful food brand. Always dedicate time and resources to building an exceptional team.

4. Funds

We cannot ignore that everything costs money, and money is your friend when you’re running a business. You’ve got to know your numbers, and pay careful attention to your cash flow.

5. Grit

A “never give up” attitude is one of the strongest traits you can have when running a business. Not everything goes smoothly. Most business owners have times of crisis. What differentiates long-lasting businesses and businesses that fade away is often the leader’s grit.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

It is very hard to nail down just one idea that people would go crazy about. Most products you see on store shelves have survived and are winners but so many more have failed.

I’ve created products that customers didn’t go crazy about so we discontinued them. What I’ve learned is that you need to give things a shot and see what the market decides. Often you won’t know what is going to work until it starts selling — or not selling. You still need to put all your effort into the products in hopes that it will be successful but how people react is always the big unknown. The key is to keep trying until you come up with something that people go crazy about. Then, when you find it, double down on what is succeeding.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My philosophy is that the existence of our business itself can make people’s lives better. Individuals who have celiac disease or gluten-intolerance are often unable to enjoy what they are eating due to the limited options. And most of them have had to continually skip dessert. I don’t feel as if I need to be the next Steve Jobs to change the world in some way. I have heard from countless customers how much our food has improved their lives, so I do believe that by offering delicious and safe gluten-free food to people, we are making their lives more enjoyable and happier and that means the world to us! We’re making the world a better place one healthy, happy, and hungry person at a time.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Increasing Gluten-free and celiac disease awareness in our society might help people to

understand how severe these conditions can be. It could help prevent the many cross-contamination incidents that occur in restaurants and factories. I would love to see more chefs, bakers and entrepreneurs specialize in gluten-free food opening up more options for everyone to enjoy and share good eats.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Chef Hiro Saito Of Kirari West and Confections KW On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.