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Asia300

Fukushima is first stop in Japan for PTT cafe chain

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- The village of Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, is not your typical gateway to the Japanese market. It is situated more than 200km from Tokyo. It is home to fewer than 2,000 residents. And the community is still struggling to recover from the 2011 nuclear disaster.

None of this stopped Thailand's biggest cafe chain from setting up shop there.

The village hosts the first Japanese branch of Cafe Amazon. The chain, a unit of Thai state oil and gas company PTT, comprises some 1,600 locations. "We are happy to enter the Japanese market," said PTT president and chief executive Tevin Vongvanich, who made the trek from Bangkok to speak at the Kawauchi shop's opening ceremony on Sunday. "We hope we will open Cafe Amazons across Japan in the future."

Kawauchi is 20-30km away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered meltdowns after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The village was temporarily evacuated, and about 30% of the registered population of 2,700 has yet to return.

PTT, though, saw an opportunity. The company felt that starting out in such a location could help to raise brand awareness, as opposed to attempting to crack highly competitive markets like Tokyo.

Tevin told the Nikkei Asian Review that one of PTT's objectives in Kawauchi is to gather consumer feedback. "We have a special coffee designed for the Japanese -- a bit lighter than coffee in Thailand," he said. "The testing in Kawauchi will provide us with some information so that we can adapt our coffee to suit Japanese tastes."

While it may be honing its brew in Kawauchi, Cafe Amazon is using the same Thai beans it offers at home. A basic cup of coffee goes for 250 yen ($2.30). The 60-seat shop resembles a wooden house, and customers are asked to leave their shoes at the entrance. 

Under a franchise contract, PTT has entrusted the cafe operation to Japanese building materials maker Codomo Energy, which has a factory in Kawauchi. The partners plan to open several more Japanese branches next year, starting in Osaka.

Tevin said Japan is one of the top three coffee-drinking countries and thus makes "a good market." 

For Kawauchi, the cafe represents a rare and welcome investment from outside the community. At the ceremony, Mayor Yuko Endo thanked PTT and expressed hope for an increase in tourism. "I think more outsiders will visit the village for this cafe," the mayor said. 

The cafe may well become a gathering point for area residents. Shigeru Seino, a 38-year-old who lives in a neighboring town, visited the shop on Sunday with his Thai wife. He said he has visited Cafe Amazons in Thailand; after his first sip, he smiled.

"This is the taste of Thailand," Seino said. "I hope this shop will become rooted in the area."

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