A Popular Japanese Bakery Chain Disappears Overnight

A Popular Japanese Bakery Chain Disappears Overnight

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Picture: Bellbe's now-defunct Web site
All 28 stores suddenly closed. Lenders and employees left unpaid. Its CEO suddenly missing. What the heck happened to Japan's Bellbe?

I’ve written a lot on Unseen Japan about food. I’ve also written about business, as well as about various crimes and mysteries.

Little did I know that one day, I would be writing a story that combined all three of these elements in one.

The story concerns Bellbe, a popular chain numbering 28 stores. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that Bellbe was thriving. Until, one day, it wasn’t. The company practically disappeared overnight. And its leader, who just days before had been consulting with an attorney, was nowhere to be found.

So what the hell happened to Bellbe?

An Expanding Chain

Bellbe (ベルべ) wasn’t some fly-by-night operation. According to business magazine Toyo Keizai[1], the company started operating in Yokohama the year your author was born – 1973.

While Bellbe was a chain, its stores operated on a “local production for local consumption” model. Each store had its own bakery. Bellbe prided itself on creating a quality product that was hand-crafted on-premises. The CEO, a regular member of Yokohama’s Chamber of Commerce, took a “scrab and build” approach to the business. Bellbe regularly closed ill-performing stores and moved existing stores to better locations.


When the pandemic hit, it seemed like Bellbe was doing well. Better than well, actually. The chain recorded best-in-class profits in 2020. And it opened a new location in Shizuoka just in September that did a booming business.

Where did Bellbe’s CEO Go?

The problem was that Bellbe's CEO was nowhere to be found. He'd left a note and bolted. Even his family didn't know where he was. Click To Tweet

But it turns out that things weren’t as rosy as they seemed.

At the end of October, Bellbe was late in making payments to debtors and multiple partners. Naturally, executives at the company looked to their CEO, Ishikawa Tamio (石川民夫), for answers.

The problem was that Ishikawa was nowhere to be found. He’d left a note and bolted. Even his family didn’t know where he was.

Suddenly, Bellbe – a company that was supposedly thriving – found itself desperately short on cash. The shortfall was so bad that, on November 8th, executives felt they had no choice but to send a one-page fax (yes, a FAX) to partners announcing that Bellbe was closing all of its stores.

Throughout the 8th, Bellbe’s stores operated as usual. Many employees didn’t even learn about the company’s dire condition until later in the day. That changed on the 9th when Bellbe officially filed for bankruptcy.

Hidden Losses

Japanese shokupan
Picture: Diziano / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

It came out later that Ishikawa had consulted a lawyer just prior to fleeing about a civil restructuring of the company. In other words, he knew that Bellbe was in debt up to its eyeballs. And he was looking for a way out.

According to a lawyer entrusted with winding down the company, the problem was that Bellbe’s official accounting was a work of fiction. Officially, the company said at the end of June 2020 that it had around 1 billion yen (around USD $8.7M) in debt. In reality, it shouldered a gigantic debt load of 5.2 billion yen. The company owed a gigantic amount of debt to lenders that it kept off its official ledgers.

Looking back, there were warning signs that flew under the radar. According to financial organizations connected to Bellbe, the company had trouble paying some of its suppliers as early as this spring. Bellbe continued to act like all was well. However, some lenders apparently noticed these cash flow issues and began demanding accelerated repayment of debts.

Biting Off More Than It Could Chew

So what went wrong? It will probably take months – if not years – to analyze. Some people connected to the demise of Bellbe speculate that the company simply bit off more than it could chew. Bellbe’s scrap-and-build approach to closing old stores and opening new, “more profitable” ones, they say, likely led to its massive debt accumulation.

In other words, it’s likely Bellbe was using massive debt to fuel its expansion. Its CEO bet that he could expand quickly enough to offset the losses the company was accumulating. In the end, it turns out, he was wrong. When the pandemic hit, rising material prices likely proved to be the finishing blow that took Bellbe out.

It could take a while to piece together what, exactly, happened. One person who could give some definitive answers, of course, is CEO Ishikawa Tamio.

If you have any information as to his whereabouts, I’m sure several lenders around Japan – and more than a few of Bellbe’s former employees – would love to hear from you.

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[1] 社長失踪で突如「全店閉店」人気パン屋倒産の顛末. Toyo Keizai

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Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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