The pandemic has been a time of great disruptions in the restaurant business, requiring ingenuity and perseverance. Owners, however, often find creative ways of adjusting to the stresses both from work and other areas of life. One such story of multiple adjustments is the family-run Raccoon in Nishiogi. Five minutes walking along Shinmei Road from Nishi-Ogikubo JR Station, you will find a small cafe that serves curry rice and raw sweets. Raccoon opened in February 2017. The simple, white-washed interior was furnished from a secondhand store in Nishiogi and even a sofa from the owners’ old home, lending it the feel of a cozy apartment where you would like to while away an afternoon with a good book.
Creating a Distinctive Menu with Vegan Items
Raccoon is a husband-and-wife operation. During the serve time, the wife Izawa Michiru handles sales. Husband Izawa Nobuhito deals with most of the cooking. The principle of their richly spiced curry is borrowed from Indian cuisine they encountered in Tokyo, with an emphasis on the distinct flavors and textures of the ingredients. They also prepare vegan dishes, such as vegetable curry rice and raw sweets. “We first tried making vegetable curry rice for vegetarians when a vegan event was held in Nishiogi,” Michiru said. “Then, not only vegetarians but also other customers told me that they want to eat it once a week because of lacking vegetables in their daily diet. So, we added vegetable curry rice as a regular menu item. Until then, there were two varieties of curry on the menu, but we have changed into three varieties, pork, vegetable, and the daily special.”
One of the key innovations of the restaurant is raw sweets. “Basically, we try not to use dairy products.” Michiru told us the story of behind making raw sweets. “Years ago, when I got sick and put on weight, I started to go on a diet. At that time, I could not eat any sweets because of my diet. At first, I tried to make cheesecake with okara (soy pulp) powder myself, but it did not work. Then a friend of mine introduced raw sweets to me. I was not familiar with, but it was really delicious when I ate it for the first time. Also, it is easy to make because we do not need to bake it. I thought that I could make it myself and decided to add raw sweets to the menu as a dessert.”
Because of the difficulty of managing ingredients, there is only one raw sweets item, raw cheesecake. “It is made with coconut milk, coconut oil, cashew nuts, lemon and miso instead of cheese,” she said. “Fermented food (miso) has good effect on it. It is common method for making raw sweets.”
Escaping from Corporate Life and Finding a Local Community
“To be honest, I had not desired to own the restaurant in the past,” Michiru said. “However, my husband likes curry and we thought, ‘Is it possible to open our curry restaurant?’ since he had was making curry almost every day. Then, we looked for a rental property and found this place by chance.”
Like many people we have interviewed, opening a café was an escape from corporate life for
Michiru. Her previous job was far removed from gastronomy. “I worked in tech and I had never thought that I would have a gastronomy business because I had some friends who are better at cooking than me. In those days some of my co-workers quit the corporate job and started to look for another job which they like. I was stimulated by their example because I did not want to keep working in the IT industry in the future. At the same time, my husband told me that he wants to start a curry restaurant, so we decided to have our own café.”
Her husband, Nobuhito also has had corporate job and he also had no experience in gastronomy. “He (Nobuhito) learned how to make curry at a cooking class run by Indian lady, then he taught himself the rest,” she said. “We had an opportunity to invite my friends and serve the curry because of our previous large house which we used to live. My friends often praised our dishes, so I thought it would be good if we could make curry into a business… The method of curry has been changing since this this café was opened. We have tried different way to cook every week with try and error, but the ingredients are usually the same, so the taste is usually the same.”
As novices in the food service business, the couple found a local network of suppliers that
include neighborhood small businesses. Beyond just business relationships, these ties are
important in creating a local network for the young couple. “I have no idea about the prices of ingredients or how to purchase them,” she said, “so I went to the local grocery store and bought the ingredients myself, and then I go to the butcher shop or supermarket on the north side of Nishiogi. It is probably completely different from the purchasing process of a normal restaurant because it's like a normal household.
Even five years on, her purchasing methods have not changed so much. “Sometimes I buy somethings online recently, but mostly, I go and buy all the ingredients myself, except for spices of curry. The butcher shops and grocery stores in Nishiogi are very good. I was also anxious about opening a restaurant for the first time. I used to work at a large company and saw many people every day, but when I started the restaurant, I suddenly felt lonely because I didn't see anyone anymore. So, I enjoyed talking with the butchers and grocers in the shopping arcade. My favorite grocery store is the Kobari Greengrocer, which is run by the son now. I also go to the Toraya Beef Butcher Shop, a store, where I buy meat mainly. The father and son have been running the butcher shop for generations, and sometimes they give me takuan (pickled radish) or melons in the summer. It is such a comfortable place, so I buy vegetables from Kobari and meat from Toraya.”
The Izawas have continued to run their café with the support of the Nishiogi community. They originally lived in Kichijoji, but gradually began to feel uncomfortable living in the town that was becoming more and more crowded with new stores and renovated buildings. “There used to be a lot of old stores, but they had already gone and it has become a big town. We lived in a busy area, so when we went to a convenience store near my previous house on a holiday, there were always lots of people outside. Also, I used to take a walk in Nishiogi, so I thought that moving here would be a good idea.”
Five years ago, they were looking for a place to open a café, and through their landlord, who was an acquaintance of their real estate agent, they moved into a two-story building in Nishiogi. Raccoon is located on the first floor. “Our house is on the second floor,” she explained, “and we make curry at the first floor. To be honest, it would have been better if (the store and home) were connected, but the landlord made it possible to rent them separately as well.”
In Nishiogi, owners of restaurants often lived above their restaurants, a pattern that has
largely disappeared as restaurants are increasingly opened in rental spaces. The couple are
rare among renter operators in living above their own business. Michiru told us the advantage of this kind of traditional style of living. “The best part is that there is no commuting. However, it is difficult for us to separate my work and my private, so that I always end up working until midnight. We have a living room upstairs, but I spend most of my time in the store (first floor). He (Nobuhito) uses the first floor as his office during the weekdays because we don't have a place to put a working desk on the second floor. Raccoon is closed on weekdays, so I think there is no problem."
Michiru prepares curry early in the morning or at night, as long as it does not interfere with Nobuhito’s weekday telework. She has been doing things this way since he started telework in 2020. Before that, she used to make curry after Nobuhito came home from work.
Challenges of Business During Covid
COVID has had a dramatic effect on the business at Raccoon, prompting a focus on take-out that continues even now. Raccoon is open on Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Monday and Friday are take-out only, and eat-in is only available on holidays. The starting point for this new way of selling (take-out) was the COVID pandemic.
The pandemic has had an especially hard impact on small business that were not able to receive government assistance. “Since there was no nighttime business, we could not receive the cooperation fee,” she explained. “At first, I thought we won’t continue this café, but he (Nobuhito) still has corporate work, so we managed to continue. We started take-out which we had not done before, and for the first few weeks of pandemic, we only did take-out.”
We asked Michiru the difficulty of opening an independent culinary business. “No matter what we do, we have to make our own decisions and do it by ourselves. For example, if you are employed, you can get paid even if there are no sales, but in our case, if there are no sales, we cannot manage it. Although the current situation is very serious, I think it seems to be good for people who want to do what they think is best for themselves.”
The sales have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but since it started take-out, Raccoon has become a community-based restaurant frequented by people living close by. “The number of customers has decreased. However, the number of people using take-out has increased. Even though teleworkers have decreased now, people who realized that it is waste of their time to cook and like the convenience of using our take-out service. Some new customers started coming to the restaurant after we started take-out. Before pandemic, there were many people who came from far away because they saw some magazines or Instagram, but those people have decreased. when Raccoon was featured in Hanako, many girls came to our café, but that was only temporary. After the pandemic, people in the neighborhood have started coming, and that's how we've been supported by them.”
After pandemic, Raccoon established itself not only as a place for customers from far away to visit fashionable cafe, but also as a place for local residents to stop by and relax. Because of its location is a little far from Nishiogi station, the majority of visitors are people who live in the neighborhood.
Small businesses are a space for building community. At the same time, for many customers they can be a very private space of escape from social relationships. An owner must balance the need for communication with an equally important need for quiet time alone. We asked Michiru how she communicate with customers who live in the neighborhood. “It depends on each customer,” she said. “I can talk to those who speak to me, but there are those who want to be left alone, so the balance is difficult. There are customers who come every week, but they don't say anything to me. I also had such kind of experience of going to a restaurant because I like it, but when owners know my preference, I feel embarrassed, and it makes it harder for me to go there again. I would be happy if they came every week. Potentially I would like to get to know our customer better, but I am careful not to step into the customer’s feeling deeply.”
Michiru tries to keep a reasonable distance from her customer. However, she feels grateful for the regulars. “I'm glad to feel like Raccoon can be one parts of that person's life cycle.”
The pandemic has meant shocks and adjustments in nearly all food and beverage establishments in Tokyo. Restaurants opening in the evening have received generous government support, but this has been lacking for cafes and other daytime establishments. Many of these, however, also switched to takeout and have seen other transformations in their business environment. Like many other business owners, the couple have struggled to adjust to new patterns of business. Living above their restaurant has allowed them to focus on take-out business while also engaging in telework.
Raccoon may be a relatively new addition to the small businesses in Nishi-Ogikubo, but it is part of a long tradition of small eateries on Shinmei Street. In fact, the property where Raccoon is located used to be an izakaya named “Tanuki.” The couple named their café "Raccoon" in respect to the longtime popularity of the izakaya among it regulars. The owners of Raccoon, who cherish their connection with Nishiogi, run the cafe, which has a warmth that makes you want to drop by even if you have nothing in particular to do. (James Farrer and Sakura Yajima, June 28, 2022)