The most authentic salad cafe in Tokyo "CITRON"


Owner Mr. Mr. Jonathan Berguig

How long have you been in Japan and what made you to live in Tokyo?

I basically came to Japan twice. The first time when I came to Japan was 2004 working for a brokerage house from France. I stayed here for 3 years and after that, I was moved to NY. I always felt I had missed something during this stay in Tokyo. Since I was here as an expat, I was surrounded by the people who can speak English and never got out of my comfortable zone. I only interacted with the same people and never felt like a local. After staying in NY for a year and half, I moved to Singapore for 4 years. Then I decided to quit this industry since I create something on my own.

Being a vegetarian for few years, I wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant in a meat-and-fish-loving Tokyo. When I arrived in Tokyo, I realized how difficult it was to order a vegetarian dish. One of my friends pushed me to start my own restaurant where I could serve vegetarian food. I worked on the business plan, financial plan, and finding a good location for two years. Obviously when I found a place, there were many hurdles to get over. Since I am from France, many of the applications were rejected by the building owners. I originally wanted to open the place little closer to Omotesando around Minami Aoyama, but the rent was way too expensive. But here in Gaienmae, we can get larger space for cheaper rents, especially as our first floor is small. It is the good mix because people can order salad to go or eat on the second floor. This area is near the shopping district and the office area, so we ended up inviting a lot of customers. 90% of the customers are women.

There is a big difference in women and men as for the food preference. Women love vegetables and to be healthy. Men do not want to spend so much of money for lunch and they love meat or pasta. At CITRON we decided not to promote the “vegetarian” side of our concept. I think vegetarian trend is not there yet.

You could have opened your place other than Japan where target customers are already stable. Why did you decide Tokyo?

When I left in Japan, I felt like I had to come back at some point to live the real Japan. I wanted to explore more. I had little idea of what was going on when I was here as an expat, so I wanted to foot step back in Japanese culture.

It might have been easier for me to open this place in NY or Paris where salad bars are already everywhere and people are familiar with this concept. When I opened this place, I remember so many women feared seeing a big bowl of salad. They had never eaten salad as a main dish as it was mainly understood just as a side dish. 2015 was the beginning of salad cafés in Japan. We needed some time to invite stable customers and spread this trend. We also have quiche and gratin dishes on the menu. In 2015 when I opened this place, there were only two or three salad bars in Tokyo.

We were very happy because people were curious of seeing some real French people working here. Japanese people sometimes have this image of uptight atmosphere and small portion of food in typical French restaurants. Since a lot of French dishes use cream and butter, people think it is very heavy for lunch. But I want to provide the mixture of Japanese and French service. It is the high-end service and food, so it is the mixture of the both good sides.

In Paris and especially on 10th district, organic and vegetarian trend is more developed. There is also a big chain of salad bar restaurants in Paris. Living in the US, and Singapore, I saw delis which served salad as a main dish.

Therefore, I always felt like this trend will come to Tokyo at some point.

Have you been a vegetarian for your entire life?

When I got my dog six years ago, I became vegetarian as it became unclear for me to see differences between all animals. They all have four legs and do not speak. A part of my heart opened for the animals. Having a dog is special to me and it entirely changed my life. My dog Raymond, a beautiful French Bulldog comes to CITRON every Sunday and all many customers come to meet him. It is always great fun!!

I was working too much for the financial company, so now I enjoy my life way more than before spending time with my dog.

I think it is not easy to be vegetarian in Japan, but how do you understand food culture here?

Japanese people are in general not vegetarian, eating different kinds of food through culture and locations. In France, about 3 % people are vegetarian. In Japan, probably less than 1% of people are vegetarian. Japan is an island and surrounded by the sea, so everyone loves fish. I knew men love meat and fish but not vegetables. We had to come up with the great idea that people would like CITRON. Women love vegetables but they do not know how to cook or do not have a time. More than that, vegetables are expensive to buy in Tokyo and they do not have so many kinds compare to France. For example, there are similar kind of green onions like leek but it is not the same when they are cooked and tasted. Leek is unaffordable in the regular supermarket. We prepare food for the busy women who do not have time to prepare and buy many kinds of vegetables at home.

Look at the people on the corner. We just heated up the gratin a while ago which was already prepared in the morning and heated in the oven for two minutes. So, it does not take a long time to serve. It is very healthy quick meal like fast food.

If you only target on purely vegetarian people, there might not be so many customers in Tokyo. But if you promote “healthy food”, then women come for eating healthy fast French food here.

How do you come up with your recipes?

All the recipes come from my mother who used to make simple and healthy food. Quiche, lemon tarte, gratin, and all the recipes are from her. Actually, she came here to teach us when we opened this place 2015, and she met all the media and was on some articles. Our chef in house is also French, so they both share the recipes and interact. I am not a chef and never can be, but I have business skills and encourage people to eat healthy food. We change the menu every month. More than that, we change the quiche menu every two weeks, so it is a huge amount of work. We change the seasonal salad menu so that we can include seasonal vegetables through talking to the greengrocer. We do not include Japanese vegetables anymore, because people come here to eat French dish and enjoy atmosphere in Paris. Look at the Instagram pictures of our customers! They comment on, “I felt like being Paris!” “I want to go to Paris!”.

Now we are on our way to open our second place in the district of Otemachi in 2018. I think it is going to be a great location since there are big amount of people, but there are not that many healthy food places. There are also a lot of bankers working in the skyscrapers. We already deliver salad lunch to bankers from our Aoyama store. Once they try our dish, they sometimes come here to check it out. 

What do you think about the people in Japan?

What really amazed me the most is that Japanese love everything when it comes to food! In France, people have their own taste. For example, I do not like cucumber at all. But here, everything we serve make them happy. We serve two kinds of soup, and both are sold equally every day. They seem always happy with what we serve.

As for the communication, it is a little bit of cliché but 90% of the customers are always nice. Our service is high quality, but at the same time, they are nice as well. Parisians could be sometimes moody. Japanese want to enjoy food and atmosphere, and they are very nice to us even though our Japanese is not perfect. They are not judgmental. Japanese are not picky and they do not complain.

I did not speak any Japanese at all before, and I learn a lot from our customers and their expectations. It is an achievement for me to learn Japanese to interact with real local people. There is another achievement: Feeding people with non-meat meal is such a successful thing without killing any animals through CITRON. We are spreading vegetarian trend slowly in Tokyo as opening the second place.

What would you like to do for the next step?

I do not have a clear goal but I want to make sure Otemachi store will be the same quality.

Now I feel so good for everything. I just need to put an effort to do more promotion, spread the CITRON concept and have more people to come and eat here. I do everything one step at a time, and I will make sure the great opportunity to decide little by little. We need to be ready for September 2018. I am always happy to hire both French and Japanese in the house. We need real French people to create real French atmosphere not just the food itself.

I work 7 days a week now, and last time I took a day off in Tokyo was when I went to the beach last spring with some friends. I also decided to close CITRON for Christmas so that we could all spend some time with our loved ones. I used to do a lot of YOGA but I stopped now by lack of time
As a foodie, I love checking out new vegetarian places in Tokyo. I would like to take more time to help a shelter in Nigata whose work is to find new families for dogs and cats who have been abandoned. However, we have a donation box here at CITRON so that customers can also help animals!

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