A Supportive Community in Hard Times
Around the world, some observers are predicting the “extinction” of independent restaurants, which are facing the triple threat of health risks, short-term financial losses, and long-term social distancing regulations. So far, however, the restaurant community in Nishiogi seems to be surviving. Government financial support helps, but the resourcefulness of the restaurateurs and support from the local community are also key factors in their resilience.
In Spring 2020, the novel coronavirus, which had initially seemed like somebody else’s problem, reached Japan as well. By April 7th, a total of seven prefectures including Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa in the Kanto area, and also Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka had emergency state declarations issued. In order to prevent infections, people were called upon to avoid the “Three Cs” (closed spaces, crowded spaces, and close-contact settings). Food and drink establishments such as izakaya, restaurants, cafes remained open in principle but were advised to shorten their business hours. (The government’s emergency plan requested opening times from 5 AM to 8 PM, and alcohol sales until 7 PM.) However, takeout/delivery services were not required to shorten their business hours.
Nishiogi is a town with a lively restaurant scene clustered around the station, and fanning out in all directions. Up until now, Nishiogiology has interviewed over fifty different establishments. But how are these places faring in this difficult situation?
First, we interviewed Kei and Ayano Okuaki who have been continuously observing the Nishiogi scene for the past decade. Using a video messaging app, we spoke on April 24, and they described the uncertainties that restaurant owners felt at that point. “As expected, the business owners are anxious because they don’t know how to respond,” the Okuakis said. “If they try to survive with only takeout, it’s painful for them because they have to turn away the uneasy people who come to them for emotional support and the people who have built relationships with the owners, and there are also freelancers and people who want to drop by. ….They said that they honestly don’t know what to do.”
Already in April, many restaurants had quickly switched to takeout in order to avoid the “three Cs,” but this produced a new and unexpected dilemma for the restaurant community. “Last week and the week before that (the weeks from April 6th and 30th) became slightly like festivals,” the Okuakis said. “Ironically, people became excited about the takeout and the number of people out was actually more than regular weekends. Long lines formed for takeout from the famous restaurants. Many of the higher-end places that you wouldn’t expect takeout from started doing takeout. I think that it was just too hard for them. There is no choice but to do what they can, so they have made a decision to do takeout.”
“In reality, about the weekends…it’s complicated. Even for us, it’s difficult to decide how to handle it. At one point, about half a month before now we were also using hashtags with only the intention of “Let’s enjoy takeout from places in Nishiogi!” but now (the week of April 20th) we’re starting to feel like we should maybe stop. Since we’re hearing a lot of things. The hashtag for bento in Nishiogi has about eight thousand posts on Instagram, in about three weeks.”
Despite such worries about crowding, however, the successful move to takeout provided a big boost to the confidence of local independent restaurant owners. “The realization that restaurants can still make money and gather customers even when it’s become like this becomes a source of confidence,” the Okuakis said. “I believe that the majority of people’s uneasiness is still about money. So it’s about what they can do now to continue to make money in a positive way.”
Accompanying the move to takeout was a move by small restaurants to boost their online presence, the Okuakis explained. “In a few weeks, there was a huge increase in the restaurants creating Twitter accounts. I think around fifteen different places. (People are spreading the word through Twitter?) Yeah. Our Twitter followers have also increased by over two hundred in just the past half-month. 6900 has become 7400 by now.”
We were able to see that there were many restaurants that were trying to survive this emergency situation by providing takeout service to their regulars while also reaching out to new customers through social media, something many of them had not actively pursued before. Still, many places were struggling. “It’s definitely difficult for restaurants that have just opened,” the Okuakis said. “It’s hard for places that didn’t have regulars that supported them in the first place, or restaurants that just opened a second location or with a lot of staff and high rent. The business owners who have to take responsibility are really scrambling around doing research on different types of financial support, and I think that everybody is negotiating on their rent. Anyways, the situation with the governmental support money changes again and again. There really haven’t been enough announcements. It’s apparently not easy to write the application forms, and even if they call it doesn’t go through. If they try to go to consult about loans, there are already long lines for that. That kind of information is being shared throughout Twitter. There might be some general awareness about how fellow business owners should help each other out.”
Speaking of a restaurant that just opened, Nishiogiology had most recently interviewed Sushi Oizumi that opened in March. We followed up with the Oizumi couple—Hiroyuki and Mineko Oizumi—in an online interview.
From mid-April to late June, they provided takeout only. And the menu consisted of items that they didn’t make normally, such as inari sushi and sukeroku (an assortment of inari-sushi and other sushi rolls), a set with kanpyō-maki, futo-maki, and chirashi sushi. At first, Hiroyuki had not been overly eager about the change. However, according to him, “It’s easy to just close, but if we close right after opening it would make us look like we are quite well off, so people might think that we’re an expensive high-end place. We leave a better impression if we’re working hard while others have closed, and then we can talk about many things with customers and ask them to come back once we resume regular operations, so I’m glad we did it. Many children have come too, since the sukeroku is 500 yen (half price) for children. They can’t go to school, so if they come we do things like give them candy, and it’s nice to have more different conversations. There are many people in Nishiogi, so a customer would give our food to a friend, and then that friend would also come…. Starting with these little things, we just have to keep working hard.”
When the pandemic hit, they had just opened and didn’t have any regulars, so takeout actually provided an opportunity for them to start making connections not only with new customers but also with other restaurant owners. In Sushi Oizumi, other than what Mr. Oizumi made, they also sold takeout from the other restaurants in the same building and yakisoba from the okonomiyaki place in front of the station. “Since there is no asaichi (monthly morning fair) now, I imagine that children would want to eat things like yakisoba, so we got it from Tokijirō (the okonomiyaki place).”
By greeting people by the doorway and giving any children, candy that he kept in his “neta box” (normally for storing and displaying raw fish), he got people to relax and enter his restaurant. “If we don’t work cheerfully, the place will seem depressed. We tell them that it’s okay to just look inside, and have them come in. We arrange everything on the counter and sell it. Instead of a sushi restaurant, we have become a takeout shop. …There are an increasing number of returning customers, and everybody says that it’s become easier to come in now that they can see inside the restaurant and the door is left open. The misunderstanding that this place is “reservation only, regular customers only” has disappeared.”
However, though constantly busy, takeout has low profit margins and requires high turnover. “We’re very busy doing takeout. More than during regular operations,” said the Oizumis. Other than the menu mentioned previously, they also sold dashi rolled omelets and soft-shell crab rolls, which are much like American spider rolls. The price for takeout was set to start from 1000 yen (half price for children), and even the reservation-only chirashi sushi was 4000 yen. Of course, no alcohol was sold. On top of that, doing takeout, there was also the cost of containers, disposable chopsticks, and plastic bags. There were many days when they sold 60~70 of the inari sushi and sukeroku set a day, their main sales item, but even with those numbers, the profits were slim.
The declaration of a state of emergency was lifted of May 25th, but through the third week of June, they continued with takeout. After a hard-earned vacation, they returned to regular sushi bar service in July.
At the time of our interview, they were not able to apply for any financial aid from the government. “We didn’t open before December last year, so we can’t apply for the aid money. It’s limited to only (restaurants that opened) over three months ago, they can’t tell with only two months, so we can’t apply. It’s not that sales have dropped since last year, there is no last year, so not applicable. We have no choice but to run the restaurant.” Despite the tense days of non-stop work, the Oizumi couple were clearly happy with the support they had received from an expanding pool of customers as well as their new ties to the local restaurant community.
We also reached out to the owner of an old well-established restaurant in Nishiogi, Bistro Sate, Manaka Naoki, whose regular customers had been frequenting as usual until they temporarily closed due to the declaration of a state of emergency.
Sate closed on April 4th, and started doing takeout from the 13th. Their approach was to upload their menu to Instagram and Facebook each week. Customers could then order through Instagram DMs or Facebook Messenger, and were asked to come to retrieve their takeout between 12 and 2 PM. “Since I make the food by myself I can’t make that much,” Chef Manaka said, “and I have to cook larger quantities since we aren’t selling drinks, it requires much more labor than usual. About forty bentos get produced a day, bentos that even include dessert. It’s very nice for our customers, apparently. We sell it for cheaper than usual, so there isn’t much profit left.”
Like the Oizumis, the Sate owners found the takeout business exhausting. “I have my hands full with reservations. Other than bento, I also make warm vegetable salad and sandwiches. It’s quite impossible to make sandwiches every day, so once or twice a week. The sandwiches aren’t reservation-only but they sell quickly. I make enough about twenty portions of sandwiches. So that makes forty bentos, sandwiches for about twenty people, and about eight warm salads. Other than that, you can also reserve (homemade) salad dressing and the red wine simmered beef cheek or tongue stew from the dinner single-item menu. Those can’t be made on the spot, so reservation only. I can’t do any more than that. I’m completely exhausted.”
Sate is planning to apply for governmental financial aid. “There is more work to do compared to before we started doing takeout, but there is little profit. Because the production cost has increased. Apparently you can get aid from the Tokyo government if you’re doing takeout. So we’re planning to apply. The application process (for national financial aid) is very tedious. We’ve finally decided to try to apply for support money tomorrow. We’re just starting to fill the application form right now. For food and drink establishments, we just have to have shortened our hours. We’re planning to apply for those two. We’re not going to apply for an alcohol takeout permit. It won’t sell unless we make it much cheaper, and it definitely won’t sell at our regular price. People might as well go to a bar. We also put out wine upfront, but there was no response. Although it would be nice if we had stuff that we could sell easily in small bottles.”
But even government financial aid can only ease losses temporarily. “It would be great if everything would resolve itself in a month, but if this continues any longer, it won’t be enough. The Tokyo government is also considering providing a second financial aid package (an extension of previous financial aid). We have one part-timer who’s helping us out now too, since it’s impossible with just the two of us (the owner and his wife). Including the part-timer, we’re doing this with three people.”
When we talked to him, Manaka was uncertain about how the restaurant business would continue over the long summer. “We still have to consider the distance between customers (we can’t fill the restaurant with customers). The restaurant used to be full during lunchtime, but we need to limit the number of customers inside. I think that’s the same for any other place. (Will prices be increased?) I wonder…it would be good if it (COVID-19) was eradicated and everybody had antibodies. For now, I think the way we operate will change.” Future prospects seem dim for restaurants that have to sell food and drink while maintaining social distancing in small spaces.
Although most of Sate’s takeout customers are regulars, there have also been some non-regulars as well. “Perhaps about two-thirds of the customers we get are our regular customers? Until now we’ve turned away children younger than elementary school students, but because it’s takeout there has been an increase in families bringing little children. Customers who used to want to come but hadn’t been able to are increasing. There are even people who say that it would be better if Sate was next door,” said the Chef with a smile. “Apparently a child said that.”
Sate’s owners had been planning to close their doors forever in December of 2020, but they still haven’t made a definite decision. “We’re thinking about what to do about that too. We haven’t come to a conclusion yet. The coronavirus itself will certainly continue. It seems like it will take much more time until it truly calms down. Right now, every day is a struggle, so I can’t think about anything else.” However, from talking with the chef across the screen, we could feel his confidence and certainty of the fact that he is having customers enjoy his food.
From these interviews, one can see that many food and drink businesses in Nishiogi survived the shutdown through selling takeout. Part of support providing traction to the excitement about takeout was a Facebook group called Nishiogi Takeouts! (2,200 members as of June 10th). We arranged to interview Azuma Yoshikazu, who was involved in creating this group.
“The person who created the Nishiogi Takeouts! page was Ms. Watanabe (Watanabe Ryōko, owner of Kantonikkusu),” Azuma explained in a Zoom call. “She started it as a page for just takeout. A friend of Ms. Watanabe’s created a webpage for takeout and participated, but there was no restriction for location, and any place in Japan would have been fine. So we thought to create a page just for Nishiogi. There were already the two groups Want to Learn More About What Makes Nishiogi Special Club (approx. 4500 members) and Nishiogi Fan (approx. 1800 members), and I also sent a message to them about wanting to take action to help out restaurants and bars, but they said that they didn’t want us to do things that could be seen as advertising. If anything, I wanted to make a page that welcomed advertising, but there wasn’t one, so I decided to make it myself. Ms. Watanabe made it as a Facebook page on April 1s. But if it was a page, you can’t post without Ms. Watanabe giving you permission. I happened to see that on her Facebook timeline and offered to help since I’m an engineer, and I made the group on April 2nd.”
“First we started with me and people I knew reaching out to people on Facebook. We then contacted the chair of the Nishi-Ogikubo town council, which is the neighborhood association for 3 and 4-Chome (in the past only that area actually was considered Nishi-Ogikubo). In the first three days, it spread to five hundred people, residents, and business owners. We also went to the two groups that said that they generally didn’t want to advertise businesses, saying that we had created this kind of group, so if people want to support takeout, then please go ahead. It spread the news with that.”
However, Watanabe’s intention as the founder was to have restaurants and bars post actively. However, perhaps due to modesty, they didn’t post very much at all. Influenced by Watanabe who was wondering why they weren’t trying to appeal more to people, Azuma also started thinking. Then, he realized that there were probably very few restaurants and bars that use Facebook as a means of spreading information. Thinking that more people use Twitter and Instagram, he created Nishiogi Takeouts! accounts on Twitter and Instagram. At this time, the Nishiogi Information Office started broadcasting Nishiogi Takeouts! activities on Twitter. At that time, #NishiogiTakeoutGourmet was the most popular hashtag, so he had people also add #NishiogiTakeouts!, and spread the word about the Facebook group. With that, the restaurant owners started to notice, and the frequency of posting increased.
Finally, the decisive moment was the creation of the takeout map. “On Facebook, people naturally started talking about how it would be convenient if there was a map. After some debate there came the suggestion of using Google My Map, but in the end, we decided to use Qoodish, a social media map website. One of the members of the group volunteered to put up the places that had been shared in the group, and then people followed suit and started adding places all over. When Okuaki-san from the Nishiogi Information Office shared it on Twitter, it got extremely popular and it became a sort of festival.”
In mid-April, however, some disapproving voices began appearing on the pages, posts from people sometimes derided as the “self-restraint police.” The criticism focused on the crowded conditions in front of some restaurants doing takeout. “It reached the point where people would be less than fifty centimeters apart, and there were people who would witness that and take pictures, and make negative posts (online). There was an increasing number of people saying that there were clearly people from outside of Nishiogi in the queues. For Watanabe-san, the aim was to get Nishiogi residents to support Nishiogi businesses, but I guess the people outside of Nishiogi who saw the information on Twitter also came. There wasn’t much negativity within the members of Nishiogi Takeouts!, but apparently there were also times when the number of negative posts increased and things became a bit edgy. Around the second week of April.”
After that, it came down to Watanabe and Azuma having to do something about it, and they sent out a message declaring, “this is takeout for people in Nishiogi.” They also broadcasted that restaurants should do takeout by prior reservation or employ some other method to avoid long lines, and that everybody should work together to find ways to avoid crowding. They posted periodically about this several times. On the Friday after the streets had become crowded, Watanabe created a poster. She also posted that owners could post it in front of their restaurants.
They put up a permanent message saying, “This is an effort in Nishiogi, we should avoid crowding,” and continued periodically posting it along with the map and guide. They also had people read the notice before joining the group. With that, manners such as calling and making a reservation beforehand were created.
This online support for restaurants will likely continue for some time, even though the state of emergency has ended, Azuma said. “Starting this kind of activity is good, but I was just thinking about how to end it smoothly and was going to discuss with Watanabe-san. But there is no other group that is advertising restaurants, so rather than just takeout, it would be nice if we could continue advertising and supporting businesses in the future. Things can’t suddenly revert back to normal, and restaurants can only let in half of their customers. Many places started takeout as a necessity, but instead of suddenly stopping, they will have to gradually stop, so I think that we should continue the movement to actively support food and drink businesses. Because people of Nishiogi love eating out.”
The impetus for this community involvement seemed to come from a devotion to local restaurants. “I love to drink and eat (out),” Azuma said. “Since I live in Nishiogi, I go to all kinds of bars in Nishiogi, and I also go with my family. I wanted to help Kantonikkusu at first because I like them. I would hate it if the restaurants and bars I patronize close because of corona. If Watanabe-san was working hard not just for her own shop but also out of consideration for other restaurants, then I wanted to help.”
But there are also places that can’t do takeout, and had no choice but to close. One such eatery was Kogiku, situated in Willow Alley. Kogiku closed before the declaration of a state of emergency and continued to stay closed until the declaration was lifted at the end of May. Finally, after two months of being closed, they opened on June 1st and resumed business completely reservation-only. The day of reopening, regular customers came over to celebrate. We received a Line message from the “mama” of Kogiku, Ms. Yamai Nami, saying:
“Every day, I search for the ways that I am lucky and count them. I will feel depressed if I think about things that provoke anxiety, so I want to live life thinking about things that are fun. With the situation this time, many of my customers took care of me. I’m full of gratitude towards them. Just that is enough for me to work hard!”
During the COVID-19 epidemic, major restaurant chains have announced the closure of branches across Japan. This represents a major loss of jobs in the industry and shows that the threat to the restaurant business from COVID-19 is very real. So far, however, we have seen few permanent closures in Nishiogi, and even some hopeful new openings. It may sound callous, but it is hard to imagine a neighborhood mobilizing to save a chain restaurant. The mobilization we have seen in Nishiogi is led by restaurant patrons who cherish their regular local hangouts and extend this concern to the larger restaurant community. This type of social mobilization is perhaps the key component in the resilience of the independent restaurant scene in this neighborhood (James Farrer, Sage Farrer, July 3, 2020)
(Interviews by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura, Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura, English and Japanese translation by Sage Farrer, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved).