Whether roasting specialty coffee, designing trend-setting garments, or collaborating with international artists, Kitsuné is a multifaceted creative brand encompassing fashion, hospitality, music and art. Johanna Lellouche, Director of Business Development and Operations at Café Kitsuné, speaks to 5THWAVE about scaling the boutique café business across the world and how coffee is weaving together the brand’s creative elements
The bar at Café Kitsuné, Brooklyn, New York City | Photo credit: Courtesy of Café Kitsuné
Launched first as a music label by Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki in 2002, who met at the formerʼs Paris record store, Maison Kitsuné’s penchant for quality and artisanal craft reflects its founders’ respective French and Japanese heritage.
With Loaëc, the former creative director and manager of superstar band Daft Punk, and Kuroki studying under renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, it’s hardly surprising that creativity remains the raison d'être behind the Kitsuné vision.
The Kitsuné, meaning ʻfoxʼ in Japanese, family of brands comprises four distinct businesses – fashion house Maison Kitsuné, boutique café group Café Kitsuné, music label, Kitsuné Musique, and Galerie Kitsuné, an art gallery and publishing house.
Today, the Maison Kitsuné and Café Kitsuné brands are present at 38 boutique locations across 11 countries around the world. Meanwhile, its music label, Kitsuné Musique and New York-based art gallery, Galerie Kitsuné, which opened in May 2022, bring together a melting pot of international creative talent.
“We started as a café concept but we’ve since diversified into coffee roasteries, bars and a restaurant business”
Enter Café Kitsuné
The first Café Kitsuné store opened in 2013 in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, with outlets in Paris following shortly after. Since then, the boutique café group has flourished into a truly international business spanning 21 cafés in 14 cities across 11 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America.
Joining the business in 2018, when Café Kitsuné had just two cafés in Tokyo and Paris, Johanna Lellouche, Director of Business Development and Operations at the café group, has been at the forefront of the brand’s international expansion and forging synergies with Maison Kitsuné’s creative platforms.
“I’ve worked to develop Café Kitsuné as a successful international brand,” says Lellouche. “We started as a café concept but we’ve since diversified into coffee roasteries, bars and a restaurant business.”
That progress towards building Café Kitsuné into an internationally renowned hospitality group is evident in the brand’s steady global growth over the last 18 months.
In September 2020 Café Kitsuné entered the UK market with a store in London’s Pantechnicon, a five storey Japanese and Nordic-themed cultural development brimming with retailers, hospitality venues and creative spaces.
Galerie Kitsuné, Brooklyn, New York City, USA | Photo credit: Courtesy of Café Kitsuné
More recently, in 2022 Café Kitsuné entered the Canadian market with a store in Vancouver, and Qatar with a store in Doha, where another is planned later in the year. Further locations in Jakarta, Indonesia and Manila, The Philippines have also opened since.
Café Kitsuné coffee is also served at select Maison Kitsuné clothing boutiques at in-store café concessions, with branches of two brands often standing side-by-side. Itʼs a strategy that Lellouche says has been a key part of developing synergies within the Kitsuné ecosystem.
Alongside Asia, which Lellouche says remains as a key market for Café Kitsuné, the Middle East holds vast untapped potential for aspirational western hospitality brands – where the appetite for new locations is evident.
“The demand for new stores in the Middle East has been amazing – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain – everywhere,” says Lellouche.
Yet, despite the flurry of boutique store openings over the past 12 months, Lellouche says Café Kitsuné is in no rush to pursue rapid outlet growth.
Instead, the business has focused on building a carefully selected network of trusted franchise partners to launch the brand’s next phase of international growth.
“It ’s great to have local partners who can help us understand markets and develop our concept further, but we need to be careful to maintain consistency, quality and service across the brand. It’s important for us not to rush openings, that’s not our strategy,” she says.
“We do not want to be Starbucks. We do not want to be on every street corner, so we’ll always try to find premier locations,” she adds.
Food is another essential element to the Café Kitsuné experience, with the brand priding itself on providing a sumptuous range of pastries, cakes and small plates.
The focus on cuisine is evident in Café Kitsuné’s stunning locations at Paris’ Louvre and London’s Pantechnicon – as well as prime locations across Tokyo, Seoul, and Bangkok.
“Opening at the Louvre was a challenge as we had to learn how to run a restaurant, but ultimately it was very rewarding. Customers liked the concept so much and we received requests from prospects all over the world who wanted to replicate the concept in their own territories,” says Lellouche.
To this end, carefully considered localisation has been a hallmark of Café Kitsuné’s global growth, with each outlet balancing the brand’s core identity with flourishes of the local culture.
“The priority is to curate each café menu for our customers to really feel at home,” says Lellouche.
“We like to offer a product mix of 70% of signature items as part of our permanent food & offer and leave the remaining 30% of exclusively curated for local customers.”
The Kitsuné joie de vivre
Café Kitsuné’s international expansion has been more than opening brick-and-mortar cafés, but growing the business as a lifestyle brand, with a range of products available at Maison Kitsuné stores and selected retailers.
Catalysing the creative firepower of its sister brands has been key to this approach. Café Kitsuné has launched a branded ready-to-wear range in collaboration with Maison Kitsuné, as well as tableware, homeware and stationery lines in collaboration with its growing pool of creative partners. Recently collaborations include UK-based Black+Blum and Japanese tableware & lifestyle brand KINTO.
“We have playlists curated by Kitsuné Musique label playing in store, so there is really a synergy between all entities of the group,” Lellouche adds.
Looking to the future, Lellouche expects Café Kitsuné to operate 29 locations by the end of 2022 and many more to come in 2023
In October 2019, Café Kitsuné opened its first roastery-café in Okayama, Japan, part of a long-term vision to feed the brand’s growing network of cafés in Asia. A second roastery was opened in Paris in February 2021 to feed Café Kitsuné’s global European and North American locations, with Kitsuné sourcing its Brazilian and Guatemalan blend with French green coffee importer, Belco.
“The opening of our roasteries was part of the strategy from the very beginning,” says Lellouche. “When we started to open cafés and expand further, we knew that we’d need our own roastery to get to know the industry and understand our taste, quality and production better.”
As with any foray into roasting, the Café Kitsuné team travelled to origin to better understand the product and liaised with coffee professionals to hone their roasting process.
This, Lellouche explains, forms part of an ongoing commitment to building long-term relationships with coffee farmers that foster both sustainable practices and increased quality in the cup. “We were looking for a fair price for both our customers and our partner farms,” says Lellouche, adding the two Café Kitsuné roasteries now produce around 30 tonnes of coffee every year.
“In the beginning, we had the origin and roasting process worldwide. But after receiving customer feedback we found we needed to adjust the roasting process to be darker in Japan and lighter in France.
“Our Brazilian origin brings a good base and solid structure to our blend while the Guatemalan beans give a tasty, unctuous and chocolate flavour, especially when paired with milk.”
Looking to the future, Lellouche expects Café Kitsuné to operate 29 locations by the end of 2022 and many more to come in 2023. The brand is also embarking on an ambitious hotel and day club project in Bali, Indonesia, that will further diversify the Kitsuné community.
With its sublime mix of coffee, craft and creativity, Café Kitsuné is a hospitality brand courageously blurring the boundaries between art and hospitality to create experiences that truly pique the senses – and will surely outfox the competition.
This article was first published in Issue 11 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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