Lost In Translation by Agnes Potter

Agnes Potter is the General Manager of Allpress Espresso and spoke at our innagural In Stories dinner, 11th June at Allpress in Dalston. This was her story she shared with the audience.

“The brief that Natalia gave for tonight was to talk about something that has helped us, hurt us, made us laugh, inspired us or all around pissed us off. I can safely say that the two years I spent living and working in Japan ticked all of these boxes.

In September 2016 Dean (my boss at the time) asked if I would consider moving to Japan to run Allpress there. It was a big decision to process but came at a time I was feeling a bit jaded and exhausted by London after a two year OE that turned into 7 years. I didn’t speak Japanese, my knowledge of the culture was limited to Harajuku girls and salary men and I had never run a business before, let alone in a country as mysterious as Japan. Naturally I said YES! without hesitation.

A surprising outcome of this experience was the overwhelming support I received from my colleagues around the world. As it turns out i was actually the first female to be a country manager in Allpress’ 28 years in business. A bit of an eye opener as I had never considered the specialty coffee industry, let alone Allpress to be particularly male dominated. While this was my first realisation, it was about to become a whole lot clearer to me that there was a gap between males and females in the workplace, especially in Japan.

My first six months were an incredible whirlwind. Everything was new, exciting and disconcertingly clean. My team were efficient, organised, extremely detail oriented and listened to instructions to a tee. This was a big change from my experience in London, where things can be a little rough and ready, it’s standard to have strong creative differences with colleagues regardless of whether they are the boss or not, and instructions are generally interpreted rather than followed.

My task in Japan was to build a team that understood the Allpress culture, work out a long term strategy for Allpress there, and find and train someone to run the business long term who could take it to the next level. My first hurdles however were some more basic tasks. How to operate my toilet (if you’ve been to Japan you will know what I’m talking about), how to catch a taxi, how to write my own name.

This is about the time when I stopped and thought - “Fuck me, what have I got myself into.”

I love Japan – its rich history and culture, which embraces tradition and the contemporary in equal measure. The food is insanely good. And of course the people. My partner is Japanese and as he reminds me daily the western world has so much to learn from Japan. For the most part I tend to agree. However it is no secret that for a country advanced in so many other regards, Japan feels surprisingly outdated in its treatment of women in the workplace. A recent example of this is the #KUTOO campaign, which involves women in Japan campaigning against being forced to wear high heels at work. This is just one illustration of where things are at.

In my own experience as a female in Japan, people were often visibly shocked when I turned up to meetings. I am both female and foreign. Frequently men and women would start deferring to my male colleagues during meetings instead of me. While this was extremely irritating, it was minor compared to the expectation to conform, faced by Japanese women.

The rules that seemed to be strictly applied were something I could shirk because I was foreign. While my behavior was sometimes alarming or “mannish” by Japanese standards, this was usually met with humour rather than outrage. My team dubbed me “Crazy Boss” which I didn’t really know how to take at the time, but have since decided it was a compliment.

Thankfully within my own team I didn’t feel that being a female was an issue at all, but the team were also very different from what I was used to. I quickly learned to navigate some of the more overt Japanese work practices. My colleagues wouldn’t leave until I did, so I started packing up at 5pm on the dot each day and usually heading home to work from there for a few more hours. ‘No’ is not really a thing – I would often walk out of a meeting feeling optimistic and excited it had gone well, only to never to hear from them again. It’s also uncommon for people to challenge or disagree with their boss. This was one of the toughest things. I almost found myself suggesting outlandish ideas just to encourage someone to very gently suggest it was perhaps not the right approach. After a while as trust was built and it became very clear to my team I didn’t have all or any of the answers, they became much more open and willing to share.

My colleagues were also very different from what you would find in a more traditional Japanese business. We were a group made up of your everyday hospo misfits. This is something that quickly struck me in Japan. The kind of people that chose a career in hospitality, particularly the more contemporary side of the industry like specialty coffee were a different breed. They were choosing the alternative path. I also started meeting people in my personal life that reinforced this, in particular some incredibly creative and very diverse females who were challenging the status quo, and also happened to be working in hospitality. Chefs, Sommeliers, Roasters, Baristas, CEO’s forging their own path in a society with very set ideas when it comes to what roles are appropriate for women and how they should behave, particularly in the context of hospitality.

Normally when you walk into a restaurant in Japan you are greeted with a performance of politeness. Service in many places feels more like servitude than hospitality. However the women I was meeting were introducing a new style and sense of individualism to their work. Creating a new identity where they could express who they were as individuals through their work rather than following the rules. Confidently demonstrating their expertise and knowledge, challenging customers and colleagues, generally giving sass and getting a positive reaction.

These were all things that inspired me in what I was trying to do with Allpress in Japan. I realized that rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of imitating a Japanese business, which I had thought was the only way for Allpress to fit in in Japan, I was encouraged to blend what I knew and loved about antipodean hospitality with what I could learn from my team – the best of both worlds. Unfortunately by the time I came to this realization it was just about time for me to return to London. It is something I did my best to instill in the team before I departed and strongly influenced who we found to run the business there.

This led to an unexpected feeling of optimism that I returned to London with. That the hospitality industry could be at the forefront of a change in culture somewhere as deeply rooted in tradition as Japan, and that it has the potential to influence other industries. It is not surprising given we are at the forefront of trends, and in order to stay current in our world it is necessary to constantly evolve. My experience witnessing this in Japan was something that really resonated and reinvigorated my passion for the specialty coffee industry and what impact it can have as a catalyst for change.”

Natalia Ribbe