Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

TOKYO — Given Alabama’s experience wooing 90 Japanese firms, many of them in the last 25 years, other states might do well to pay attention to its strategy. 

Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield hinted at the SEUS-Japan conference that it’s not just about a well-trained labor force and affordable land. Soft factors like hospitality and even Southern food can play a role. 

Mr. Canfield described this in almost mythological terms, recalling how a well-placed culinary delight turned a crisis into an opportunity and single-forkedly clinched a nine-digit deal for an auto supplier that would serve both Honda’s plant and a new Toyota-Mazda joint venture in Huntsville.

The story goes that a visiting Japanese CEO was getting close to make a decision, and it came time to share a meal, but there was no Japanese restaurant in the small town of Jasper, Ala. So the group went to the nearby country club.

“It offered a very distinctly down-home menu item that this particular Japanese CEO had never heard of much less tried. So I urged him to sample…fried green tomatoes,” Mr. Canfield said. “The Southern meal was a hit. And we built a great rapport in that moment, sharing a meal together and something that this gentleman had never tried, but unexpectedly learned to enjoy.” 

The rest, Mr. Canfield might as well have said, was history.

“Jasper got the plant and the good jobs have come with it.” 

(Pat Wilson, Georgia’s commissioner of economic development, later wondered aloud whether it might have been tempura fried green tomatoes.)

Later that evening over drinks, Global Atlanta met the company involved in that transaction, and it’s safe to say that tax incentives were at least an accompaniment to tomatoes in sealing the deal.

Perhaps, though, Alabama has come upon a foodie formula for FDI success: A “$100 million banana pudding” helped secure a Chinese investment near Dothan in 2014, though it wasn’t enough to stave off cultural clashes later on.

What is abundantly clear from the SEUS-Japan conference, however, is that especially for Japanese expats on long assignments away from their homes and families, gestures of welcome still leave a good taste in prospects’ mouths.

“For me, this episode underscores why all of us here must continue to strive to ensure that this harmonious partnership continues to flourish well into the future,” Mr. Canfield said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...