In a launch over 20 years in the works, Singaporean barbecued pork chain Bee Cheng Hiang has finally made inroads into Japan - its 11th overseas market and the one that has been the hardest to crack.
The chain opened its first store late last month in the heart of glitzy shopping district Ginza, just a stone's throw from the world's largest Uniqlo store.
Bee Cheng Hiang group general manager Daniel Wong attributed the lengthy process to Japan's strict food safety and regulatory compliance framework, a business culture complicated by the language barrier, and the decision to wholly own the store instead of leasing it out to a local franchisee.
There were also government-to-government level talks to allow the import of meat from Singapore, he said, including trips by officials from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to Bee Cheng Hiang's Singapore factory to observe its operations.
To make up for lost time, it is embarking on an aggressive expansion drive, with more stores already being planned for the Ginza belt and the Shimbashi business district.
No timeline was given but the chain has a track record of rapid expansion: It already has 17 outlets across three cities in South Korea, where it opened its first store in 2010 in Seoul.
Ms Peggy Chin, who is in charge of the brand's Japan operations, said it was confident of breaking into the Japanese market. "The feedback from the other markets in North-east Asia - Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan - has been that Japanese tourists buy our product and recognise us as the 'barbecue chain from Singapore'," she said. "So, we are very confident that the potential here is unlimited."
When The Straits Times visited the Ginza store last week, the staff - Singaporeans on temporary work visas - were overheard conversing with customers in a mix of English, Mandarin and Japanese.
A first-time customer who gave his name only as Mr Yamamoto, 55, said he was drawn to the store by the aroma of freshly barbecued pork and the samples provided by promoters outside the store.
"The products are interesting and I was curious about what Bee Cheng Hiang is selling," he said, adding that he likes the "unique" taste.
Ms Chin said the company has acquired factory space in nearby Kanagawa prefecture. The chain has two factories in China, where it opened its first store in 2002 and has more than 200 outlets.
The 83-year-old brand joins other Singaporean food brands that have established a presence in Tokyo. Wee Nam Kee, the chicken rice store, celebrated the first anniversary of its Tokyo restaurant in a Ginza shopping mall last month.
Soya bean specialist Mr Bean's store in the Shibuya shopping district is used by locals as a meeting point.
Salad Stop will be making its Japanese debut later this year, IE Singapore chief executive officer Lee Ark Boon told a Tokyo symposium last week that was jointly held by The Straits Times and Japanese media group Nikkei Business Publications.