Robb Shannon

Founder, Owner and Pitmaster Midtown BBQ

Where did you grow up, and what was your early life like?


I was born in the Vancouver suburbs. I moved around a fair bit growing up, including a few years in Toronto and a bunch of time spent along the West Coast. I had family in Seattle and LA, so I spent summers and other holidays down there as well.


My dad was in the mineral exploration business and travelled a lot. He was always bringing home artifacts, recipes, music and mementos to share with us and inspire us.


My grandparents lived on a couple of acres outside of Vancouver—basically a farm—and my grandfather was big into grilling, smoking, and any type of BBQ. He grew peppers and tomatoes and made his own hot sauces and salsas. He was a lumber mill general manager by day and a pitmaster by night. We hosted big neighborhood parties with whole-hog BBQs, kegs of beer, and themes like Cowboys and Indians.


How did you end up in Japan, and in particular Nagoya?


My uncles, who built houses, originally came over during the late eighties to build 2×4 homes in Nagoya and the surrounding areas, so I was familiar with Nagoya even as a kid. Their stay and stories inspired a lifelong curiosity about the country, which I eventually visited after graduating college. Nagoya is a big city with a small-town feel. It seemed like an easy place to adapt to a completely new culture, so that’s where I ended up.


How and why did you get into the barbecuing business?


I was destined to be in the hospitality industry from when I was a young boy; it just took me awhile to realize it. I studied tourism management for my undergrad, and my culinary studies took me to France and Italy.


I love preparing all types of food, but at the core I love cooking meat with fire and smoke. My fondest memories growing up are getting the family together and grilling up steaks, burgers or ribs. BBQ is a food people usually cook for friends and family in their backyard. 


What convinced you to open branches in Yokohama and Tokyo?


As the business grew, I just went where the customers were coming from. We became quite popular with the US military people stationed in Japan, and they were driving from the base all the way to Nagoya, so Yokohama—near Yokosuka—was a natural expansion location. 


For Tokyo, it just felt like that’s where we should complete the initial expansion. Our core concept is to supply a “taste of home” for Japanese who have been abroad, expats missing home, and everyone else who longs for something to briefly take them elsewhere. And Tokyo is naturally Japan’s biggest market.


What’s cool about running an eatery in Japan, and what’s tough?


The coolest thing is getting to meet all sorts of people. A restaurant is an easy way to connect on the most basic human level, and I love nothing more than seeing a weary traveller leave our place happy and fulfilled.


I’d say the tough part is putting together a great team and keeping them performing at a high level night after night. I started off my career in five-star hotels with some great companies, and do my best to bring that hospitality mindset into what is essentially a casual full-service restaurant. A restaurant is like a live performance every night—there is no redo. But if you enjoy that, it’s a very rewarding experience.


What do you do during your off-hours?


This really is a family business, and a huge commitment of time, energy and resources. When I opened my first restaurant, the lines between work and personal time were forever blurred. That may sound bad to someone working a 9-5 job, but for me it’s the only way to live because I love what I do.


That said, I haven’t lost the travel bug that got me into the hotel and restaurant business, so I travel whenever I can. I enjoy hiking, snowboarding, boating, motorcycles, cooking, reading, and of course spending quality time with family and friends. I’ll probably have a new hobby by the time this article comes out!

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