"3 Things I Learned Opening A PDX Doughnut Shop in Japan"

Blue Star's Micah Camden reports from Tokyo on fancy donut mania, getting humbled by Japanese bakers, and why you ought to cover your tattoos before going to the gym.

By Kelly Clarke April 24, 2015

A still from Camden's Blue Star Donuts' Tokyo TV morning show star turn.

After colonizing every quadrant of Portland with their highbrow/low cost iterations of burgers, doughnuts, ramen, and fried chicken, serial restaurateurs Katie Poppe and Micah Camden recently left, not only the city, but the country, to establish their first non-Portland restaurant—a Blue Star Donuts located more than 4,000 miles away in Tokyo.

Camden’s Blue Star Donuts (as it’s known overseas) opened April 17 in clothier Fred Segal’s new Western-themed shopping complex Log Road, in Tokyo's chic Daikanyama neighborhood. Camden and Poppe provided recipes, branding, and the design and kitchen production blueprint while the savvy luxury brand managed the project on site, from hiring staff to handling build out.

Fred Segal also lured San Francisco's Tartine and Kirin Beer to its chic, lumber- and ivy-adorned open mall. (It looks a little like downtown Portland's Union Way—itself home to the duo’s Boxer Ramen.) But despite its high profile neighbors, so far it's Stumptown’s own fancy brioche rounds that have garnered the biggest buzz in their new town. We're betting that's due as much to Tokyo's voracious appetite for Portland culture as Fred Segal's crack PR team. So far, Blue Star has already starred in many amazingly detailed Japanese morning shows spots (see video at the bottom of post) and sparked lines of hungry, excited locals that snake down two city blocks.

Jet-lagged and motor-mouthed, Camden took a break from empire building to share three lessons, in his own words, from his doughnut-centric Lost in Translation trip*:

Staff at Camden's Blue Star Donuts prepare for the hungry horde.

I flew into Toyko with Blue Star’s chef Stephanie Thornton two weeks before the opening of the store. We get off the airplane and a news crew comes up to us and says, "Can we ask you some questions?" They are from one of the most popular shows in Tokyo, which follows foreigners around to catch all those "Holy fuck, I’m not in Kansas anymore” moments on tape. We told them we were here to open a doughnut shop. And the host said, “Oh! Blue Star? Basil-blueberry?!?” And my mind was blown—or, well, my ego was blown. They already know about us in a land far, far away. This is awesome.

The next day, when I walked into Blue Star Tokyo, I was scared shitless. Until now, I had built all my restaurants with the same Portland guys. The guy who built [Camden's first restaurant] Yakuza 12 years ago, is building Hop Dog right now, and built everything in between. But the Daikanyama shop was like an immaculate conception—I almost buckled at the knees when I first saw it. Two weeks before opening, the staff was already training; already cracking the whip in the kitchen, recipe testing—I don’t hold my own employees to that level of excellence.

Blue Star Tokyo's matcha doughnut.

Honestly, the Japanese crew is already doing some things better than we do in Portland—their version of our matcha green tea doughnut is so much richer, so much better. Turns out I was using raw matcha and the Japanese bakers were like, “No!!! You have to bloom it, you have to bring it to life!” [Portland Blue Star shops will switch the to Japanese matcha recipe soon.]

The level of efficiently that the Japanese crew has is insane—their kitchen is 300 square feet smaller than the downtown Blue Star kitchen, but it puts out more doughnuts. It goes back to that Jim Jefferies joke on confidence: I showed up in Japan with all my arrogance in full fucking swing. And, instead, I met people who taught me how to do what I do better. It was quite humbling. I’ve already reverse-engineered some of the Tokyo shop’s processes and will use them in Portland.

Blue Star owners Katie Poppe and Micah Camden.

Katie stayed in the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel, you know, the one from Lost in Translation? I wanted to have my own Bill Murray moment too; the confused traveler endorsing Americana in Japan. But when I wake up in my nice, five-star ANA Intercontinental hotel and try to go to the gym, the staffer said: “Oh, sorry sir. No tattoos.”

[Note: Camden has had a massive amount of tattoo work completed in the last year (photo, left). Portland ink from Historic Tattoo’s Bradley Delay covers much of his body from wrist to ankle—both arms sporting a think tangle of forms and embellishments, from Winnie the Pooh to a huge whisk.]

I kinda knew that tattoos were frowned upon in Japan…Everywhere: “Oh, sorry sir. No tattoos.” I walked 10 miles to find a gym anywhere that I could work out at. My toes were bleeding by the time I got back and nobody would let me in. The nice tea shop I wanted to visit pulled me out of line and told me I couldn’t be there. I tried to get into a 400-year old, Michelin-starred soba noodle restaurant—they wouldn’t serve me. Mind you, I got the most polite rejections ever— it’s just a rule. I was told many times that nobody has tattoos, besides the Yakuza. Tokyo doesn't allow me to work out in its gyms, but it sells girls panties in vending machines in the subway (I saw them).

So, on one one end I have people bowing to me at Blue Star like a celeb and I’m being shunned at gyms on the other. I was starting to feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—I’ve got all this money and nobody will take it from me. I felt like, fuck it, I’m going to embrace this shit. I’m going to start wearing tank tops and shorts around with my shaved-side Miley Cyrus haircut. If my arms are offensive, wait until they see my legs. “It’s just like Portland,” my business partner Matt Lynch told me. “People either love you or hate you. This should be a walk in the park.”

Tokyo morning show hosts taste-test Blue Star's goods.

Blue Star Tokyo’s Press Day, the day before we opened, was a trip—seven hours of non-stop interviews with TV show after TV show after newspaper, after magazine, from Japanese Vogue to Elle. There were people everywhere: Paul Blum, the CEO of Fred Segal; Adam Sandow**, he owns Fred Segal. [Camden swipes through photos of Log Road, pointing out Blue Star co-owner Katie Poppe, a crush of eaters, translators, lawyers, several gorgeous women, and a red food cart]. Fred Segal spent $100,000 redoing a Citroën as a food truck at Log Road. It served shrimp in hot dog buns during our opening night—it was awful. So, Sandow gave the truck to me and Matt Lynch. We’re making it a grilled cheese and tomato soup food cart—nothing more American than that. We’re gonna spread the bread with white miso butter before we grill it—and we’ll serve everything with Camden’s Catsup, of course.

Anyway, on opening day, Blue Star Tokyo just got busier and busier and busier. Insane. Honestly, the customers seemed to like all of the doughnuts. The favorite was probably Blueberry Bourbon Basil—it’s still the dead ringer. The next day the line to get into Blue Star crossed the street and left Log Road. The next day, they hired people to stand next to the line and write out the wait time for doughnuts on dry erase boards. It was up to three hours. The day after that the line was two city blocks long. We sold out before we opened the doors. And that’s what it’s been every single day since. The Japan shop sells 1,200 donuts per day; in the first 2-3 hours of each day. Last I heard, lines are starting at 6 a.m …. for a fuckin’ doughnut. What did opening a doughnut shop in Japan do for me? It gave me perspective. The world is a lot bigger than I thought it was. What am I gonna do with that knowledge? … Lose sleep.

*Edited for space, clarity, and superfluous f-bombs. Lesson names by PoMo.

**Bonus Camden brag: “Adam Sandow told me he and Paul Blum had dinner at Jiro Dreams of Sushi [sushi master Jiro Ono’s 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant] with their interpreters. The chef asks them why they are in Japan and Sandow tells him about Log Road, and mentions they licensed Kirin, Tartine, and Blue Star for food options. And Jiro-san, the one from the movie, goes: “Oh, the place with the doughnuts?” I am not fucking lying. At all.”

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