Savvy Spotlight: Traci Consoli and The Pink Cow
How This Rockstar Female Entrepreneur Defied The Odds
Landed in Japan with a one-way ticket, $500 and what she calls “my big mouth”, Traci Consoli’s is a success story that’s defied the odds. Over 16 years, she’s faced it all to grow her business from a small bar in a basement to the legendary Roppongi institution it is today.
The Pink Cow. You’ve probably been or got a friend who has. Famous for its art performance and music nights, as well as some of the city’s best burritos, it has provided an artistic hub for Japan’s creatives since Traci decided to do what she’d said she never would.
“Friends were telling me I should open my own place for years. But I knew how the tough the restaurant industry could be, especially in Japan, where I didn’t speak the language or have any idea of how to set up a business,” she muses, in between greeting musicians as they arrive for that night’s jam session.
So how exactly did she do it? We caught up with her (and a glass of wine) to talk religious studies, rockstar husbands and opportunities for female entrepreneurs in Japan.
Let’s go back to the start. Why Japan?
I came to Japan directly after I graduated from university in California. My main degree was as a painter but for my second degree I studied Japanese and Asian religions with a focus on Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. So coming to Japan for my “after school, before life” time made sense to me!
So off I went with $500, a one way ticket, no job and no Japanese, wondering why my parents were worried. I didn’t actually think I would stay for more that a couple of years, it was only meant to be for life experience. But, I also thought I would never get married, unless it was to a rockstar. Somehow, I ended up getting married to a well-known Japanese guitar player and stayed for that. I started The Pink Cow because I love California, art and music and wanted to make a place like home.
How was The Pink Cow born?
I was an artist working with all of these incredible people, and it was just kind of natural to me that they should come to my place. I’d cook them food, and we’d talk, and they’d invite their friends over too. I mean, you can’t really hang out in an izakaya or karaoke bar. Slowly my living room became this hub for creative people and they would tell me I could make money instead of letting them drink all my booze. But I really didn’t want to open a restaurant. My first reaction was always, “f**k no, no way.”
So what made you change your mind?
I’d been ten years in Japan and had reached a crossroads. Seeing my brother go back home to do an MBA, I felt that something was missing in my life. I wanted to learn, to create something meaningful, and to be part of a community. I realized that opening my own restaurant wasn’t so far away from that idea. And once I decide to do something, there’s no stopping me. I’m very hard-headed, very determined.
I persuaded [my business partner] Naoya to start a catering business out of our art and design studio until we could find a more permanent location. Friends lent us their basement space on the weekends and The Pink Cow was born.
One of the biggest challenges in setting up a restaurant must be finding a space, especially in somewhere as crowded and expensive as Tokyo. How did you find the first location for The Pink Cow?
I knocked on a lot of doors. I knocked on every door of every disused space across the city. If I saw what looked a place that might be available, I would try and get introduced to the owner. Getting a meeting was just the first step as I then had to convince them to let us rent even though we didn’t have a business model or proper funding yet.
Doors were constantly getting slammed in my face. It took three years but eventually we found someone who was willing to give us a chance.
They deferred our rent for three months and we set up the original restaurant.
Why “Pink Cow”?
Good question! I wanted to come up with a name that was fun, and showed that friendly California vibe. It’s artistic to me too, the idea of a cow painted pink. Actually, though, the main motivation behind the color choice was to avoid attracting any kind of bad reputation. The words “pink” and “cow” together are the furthest from a sleazy strip bar I could think of!
Was it hard, as a woman, to be taken seriously as a business owner?
In all honesty, as much crap as there can be with things being more difficult for women, when it came to setting up the Pink Cow I didn’t really face any specifically gender-based discrimination. The banks were fine, though I mean, I understand why they would have been wary of supporting a business without a concrete plan. I guess the only area where there might be a problem would be real estate. I have heard of some old-fashioned agencies that don’t want to rent to women on their own. But for government things, as long as you’ve got your paperwork in order, it’s totally fine.
I’ve had other female business owners say to me that male clients or men they’ve worked with don’t take them as seriously. But it’s more in terms of being excluded from “old boys clubs” and similar conservative business practices that sometimes still happen here.
For restaurants though, it doesn’t seem to be an issue.
I would say that, if you’re concerned about this kind of thing, why not tailor your business to the female market, to that niche? You’ll find there’s a support network of women facing similar issues. How can your business provide a solution? It’s about turning around that problem into an opportunity.
Do you think that there are more women starting their own business in Japan compared to ten years ago?
Oh my god, yes. I’ve been here more than half my life and have seen some huge changes in that regard. It’s not only that there are more women who are interested in setting up their own company but how the whole society has opened up in the way it looks at women. I mean, for centuries, they’ve underutilized half of the population and finally they’re ready to stop bitching about the sucky economy and allow us to do the great things we’re capable of.
There’s definitely been a shift in the mindset, I would say, in the last five years especially. When I first got here, women didn’t even think about working, it was all marriage and kids and that’s it.
Now it’s much more common to see women running companies, it’s really starting to snowball. There are publicly-funded loans just for women out there, programs to help facilitate women’s entrepreneurship – the government is really starting to step up.*
What’s your favorite thing about running The Pink Cow?
Definitely the people. None of it means anything without sharing and growing together with wonderful and talented people!
What would Savvy readers would be surprised to know about you?
Oh god, there’s not much that people don’t know about me! Nobody would be shocked to know that I’m insane (laughs).
I guess people are sometimes surprised to learn how much I like studying. I love to learn, especially science. People look at me and they see a party girl. But I have a great love for intellectual and spiritual development. It’s really important to me.
What’s coming up in the future for The Pink Cow?
We’re getting ready for our annual homestyle Thanksgiving dinners on November 24th and 25th. We squeeze everyone in the best we can – just like back home! We do the most authentic American Thanksgiving in town so it is crowded but worth it if you love food (including my family stuffing). It’s sort of like being at a giant kids table with booze.
Also in the pipeline is a new online ordering system. Soon you’ll be able to order the famous Pink Cow burritos, holiday meal packages and a selection of vegan dishes for frozen online delivery. We’ll be announcing on our Facebook and website as soon as we’re ready to launch so keep your eyes peeled like a potato!
*Check out this blog post which has useful information on business loans for entrepreneurs in Japan.
For details of upcoming events, including Thanksgiving and the monthly Jam Cake jam session, check The Pink Cow official website. For catering or food delivery for parties, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.