Lost Recipe From A Dying Man That Made His Daughter A Multimillionaire!

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It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood film. A struggling woman finds a secret recipe from her dead father which then results in her opening a restaurant chain and becoming a multimillionaire. 

And it’s all true.

Hiroe Tanaka was just 21 when her father died. However, he left behind something that would change her life: a recipe for fried meat on a stick.

Hiroe adored the Japanese street food known as kushikatsu, and he’d spent endless hours working out how to make it just right. 

The handwritten memo, which detailed how to cook the seemingly simple dish, helped save a restaurant business from bankruptcy in 2008, elevated Tanaka from part-time employee to the vice president of a company named after her, and made her a multimillionaire. The university dropout who once worked as an office lady now sets strategy for the $82 million Kushikatsu Tanaka Co.

A popular street food in Osaka in Western Japan, kushikatsu, consists of battered meat and vegetables on a skewer, deep-fried and then dipped in sauce.

Kushikatsu is common on the streets of Osaka, in the west of Japan’s main island, where Tanaka grew up. It’s less known in other parts of the country. The food originated as a quick, filling meal for laborers.

It was one of Tanaka’s favorite foods growing up and her father had spent hours and hours perfecting his recipe when he wasn’t working as a real estate agent.

After her father died, Tanaka started a degree in literature but then dropped out and started administrative work.

She’d spend her free time trying - and failing - to recreate her father’s perfect kushikatsu, so in the late 1990s decided she wanted to have a career in food and took a job with Keiju Nuki, a bar manager in Osaka.

The years went by but Tanaka just couldn’t get her kushikatsu right: “It wasn’t as simple as I thought,” she says. “I began to think, maybe I can’t do it after all.”

When Nuki, also 46, expanded into Tokyo a couple of years later, Tanaka moved to the capital to work at a high-end restaurant he opened.

Again, Nuki let her try to cook kushikatsu, although he didn’t share her passion for the food. But she couldn’t get it right, even with the help of professionals. After several years, she started to think her father’s kushikatsu would die with him.

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought,” she says. “I began to think, maybe I can’t do it after all.”

At that point, things got worse.

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it decimated the customers willing to splurge out at Nuki’s restaurants. He told Tanaka the game was up: he was closing down and it was time to go home.

Tanaka wasn’t willing to quit. She even offered to borrow money for the business under her own name. But she accepted it was time to take a step back, and started to pack.

That’s when she found it. It was in a box of memos and mementos from her dad. He’d left her the secret of his kushikatsu after all.

Neither Tanaka nor Nuki had any expectations for the scrawled instructions, which had been corrected over and over. “The discovery wasn’t dramatic at all,” Nuki recalls. “It’s not like the memo had ‘success guaranteed’ written on it.”

But they tried it and it worked. “It was, indeed, the taste of the kushikatsu my father used to cook,” Tanaka says.

Nuki, a newfound kushikatsu fan, decided to make one last attempt to conquer the Tokyo restaurant scene. He found a small property in a quiet residential area outside central Tokyo, where rent was cheaper. He filled the kitchen with equipment from his old places, and whatever was missing he bought using an auction website. “A lot of people told me not to do it, that the place wouldn’t attract people because there weren’t any other shops nearby,” he says.

But the Tanaka kushikatsu went viral.

So many people were lined up to get in even at 1 a.m. that Nuki had to set up extra tables outside. The number of bicycles parked outside the shop drew complaints from neighbors. Passengers on buses stared with curiosity at the long lines.

Nuki and Tanaka added a second and third store. They all bustled with customers. When a rival kushikatsu joint opened in the trendy Shibuya area of Tokyo, the two decided it was time to turn their business into a franchise.

“I pay tribute to my father every day,” Tanaka, 46, says in an interview. “It all happened because of the recipe.”

Kushikatsu Tanaka started trading in September after a popular initial public offering priced at the top of its indicative range. The shares, which are listed in Japan’s Mothers Market for smaller firms, gained more than 50 percent through the end of last week. They rose 0.3 percent on Monday.

The chain has come a long way since it opened its first restaurant in Tokyo in December 2008, where Tanaka and Keiji Nuki, the company president, used second-hand kitchen equipment to keep costs down. Kushikatsu Tanaka now has 146 franchises across Japan and one in Hawaii. It plans to open 40 more this year.

“At first, I didn’t like the idea of having others involved,” Tanaka said. But “what I hated most was having people in Tokyo try kushikatsu made by copycats and come away with a negative image that it tastes bad,” she says.

Kushikatsu Tanaka reported 316 million yen ($2.9 million) in operating profit for the year that ended in November, a 57 percent increase from the previous 12 months. The stock has caught the attention of industry analysts, with three brokerages initiating coverage this year. One says buy and two recommend holding.

Ryotaro Sawada, an analyst at Ace Securities Co. who has a neutral rating on the shares, sounds a note of caution. “The company is targeting 40 stores this year, but investors should be aware of the odds of the number falling short of that goal given the competition,” Sawada wrote in a note to clients earlier this year.

Kushikatsu Tanaka traded at 31 times earnings at Friday’s close, versus an average of 26 times for 194 firms in the Topix Retail Trade Index. Analysts expect the stock to rise 17 percent over the next 12 months.

Tanaka, once one of Japan’s forgotten legion of part-timers, owns 4 percent of the company, a shareholding that’s now worth more than $3 million. In some ways, it’s her father’s last gift. As for the recipe, she says only herself and Nuki have seen it since she found it, and it’s going to stay that way.

“Kushikatsu is life to me,” Tanaka says. “I don’t know what I would do without it.”

Sources: 1 2

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