A Beloved Izakaya Builds on Its Success
Nishiogi’s beloved Izakaya Shinpo has just opened up a spacious and sparkling new location directly beside its cramped but quaint long-term premises. Until recently the new space was occupied by the chain restaurant Gyukaku. The simple fact that a private restaurant has taken over a former chain restaurant space will undoubtedly please the Nishiogiology readership. According to Shinpo staff, they hope to keep both the new and old space running. For now, though the old one is closed, as is the nearby annex called “Stand Shinpo,” as all hands are on deck at the new store. If they can find the staff to keep all locations open, 65 new seats in the new restaurant would nearly triple the number of customers the Shinpo team can serve in one night. The new wood counters and bright dining room also lend the restaurant a squeaky upscale feel compared to its old tenement-like quarters nearby. Still, in this era of declining population, shrinking markets and growing corporatization of the food and beverage business, it’s remarkable to see a private restaurant with enough business (and bravery) to expand into larger premises and take on greater risks. But if one restaurant in Nishiogi can do it, it is Izakaya Shinpo.
In a neighborhood with hundreds of restaurants of every description, Shinpo stands out for consistently ranking near the top on gourmet food sites like Tabelog. Its reputation for taste and price-performance also is widely shared among local Nishiiogi gourmets. Last Spring, the laconic chef Mr. Shinpo Noriaki grudgingly took time for an interview during his busy afternoon preparations. Though he spent the first few minutes of the interview explaining why interviews were largely a waste of time, and in particular, why he disliked talking about himself, ours turned into a quite wide-ranging conversation during which he shared with us a few of the secrets of his hard-earned gastronomic success. With the opening of his new location, we are finally getting around to publishing this longish interview, and hope it gives some background to his latest bold move.
In a market that is saturated with places selling similar ingredients and atmosphere, we asked, how does Shinpo stand out? “For a restaurant, it’s actually not that easy to keep delivering delicious foods!” he said. “There is an issue of philosophy or attitude. It’s not just about presenting fresh fish. It’s not that simple. Of course, there are products that are too old or no good, and we try to always hold ourselves to a certain level. But the quality of fish fluctuates quite a bit. If you don’t keep up your guard, something will slip by you. You have to keep at to make sure the quality doesn’t lapse.”
“That’s why it’s so hard, and why not so many people will try to do this. So, there is not much competition,” Shinpo said with the matter-of-fact confidence born from success. “Of course, there are some [competitors], but not so many, not like yakitori. Look, good fish is expensive! I am spending a lot of money on deliveries. And there is terrible loss [spoilage] -- unfortunately. About 20 or 30 percent. If we are just talking about fish, the profit margins are terrible. But the whole point of continuing is that I want people to be able to eat good food at a reasonable price. If we can’t do that, then there is no point in running a place like this. There’s no other way to do it. I want to sell the kind of fish that I would like to eat myself. That’s why I keep this up.”
“And sometimes you spend your money to buy some fish, and when you start filleting it, you realize it’s no good. Of course, I could just try to get that money back by selling that to the customer [but I won’t do that]. In other restaurants, there is an owner and there is a manager, and the owner will tell the manager to keep costs to a certain rate. Here I am both the owner and the manager, and I can say we won’t serve that. I don’t care about the cost ratio. As long as I can pay the salaries and the rent, we will get by. So a lot of customers are coming. That’s it. And if the customers are down with it, that’s all I care about it. As long as they drink alcohol the numbers [food cost ratio] will go down. I have a gut feeling about it. If people like the food, they will drink alcohol, that’s how I manage the restaurant. So for the fish, I don’t sweat the details on cost.”
“I will think about it with drinks,” he explained. “That’s where the profits come in, and that’s where we will look at the cost ratio. But you don’t want to go too far with that either. Of course with sake, which has a high cost ratio, you want to be choosey about what you buy. And with fish, I won’t buy it when the price jumps up. I will choose the things that I can sell. Of course, this is because I am doing the purchasing.”
So basically, Shinpo is telling us, for fish he is not generally meeting the target food cost ratios that restauranteurs strive for. Rather the fish has to meet his personal standards. Given that philosophy, he also takes charge of purchasing himself. “I usually get there around 6 am. The stalls are opening around 5 am. Basically I go every other day. Yesterday I went, so today I ordered over the telephone. Going every day is just hard on the body. I’ve known the people in the market for over 15 years. They know me, and they know what I like. So to some extent, they have it prepared for me.”
It’s a deceptively simple business model. He buys good fish, prepares it and the customers enjoy the taste. “When I started this career, I really tried lots of things. There are really some incredible chefs. There are people who are really good at completing a dish. Like in French cuisine, you can just put a sauce on it … I tried that kind of thing, but I don’t really think I have a talent for that. People with a sense of taste who can balance the taste with a gram of salt, people who can work from a recipe. But I can’t do that sort of thing. What I am good at, if I think about it, is finding good products and presenting them in their original form to the customer. I quit doing “cuisine” and just do “technique.” I cut sashimi. I grill fish. I stew fish…”
Most customers who come to Shinpo for the “sashimi selection [sashimi moriawase],” a great heaping cornucopia of colorful raw seafood. "At some point, everyone started to walk in ask for the ‘select sashimi,’ as the first item they order,” Shinpo explained. “Now everyone orders it. So the orders keep coming. Because of the turnover, naturally, the amount increases. In the beginning, we were even told that the amount was too little. In the beginning, the customers are only coming to check out what kind of restaurant is this, and they weren’t ordering it. So we weren’t ordering much. You can’t leave fish sitting there. The longer you keep it, the bigger your losses. But now we have to bring in inventory. It's scary to open the store again if you don't have anything to sell, the orders are intense. It's easier than ever now. But when you can’t sell it, you will be sorry about even one horse mackerel [aji]. "
Of course, fish has a season. In fact, the fish on the market changes daily depending on the fishing conditions. So the fish Shinpo offers changes seasonally, even daily. "What's interesting about fish is that the menu changes on its own, depending on the season,” Shinpo explained. “The items being brought in just change. So you don’t decide to change, it just changes for you. So it’s not like this week I will go buy shrimp because I want to make shrimp surimi. That basically never happens. It’s because shrimp are on the market, so I buy them. So, then I'll buy shrimp and then, say, salt them. That's basically how it works, or it’s what I'm doing.”
When you listen to Shinpo, his basic philosophy is to present delicious ingredients to the customer with their original taste and sell this at a reasonable price. So we asked him in greater detail about how he achieves this. First, he talked about fish. “The seasonality of fish is unpredictable,” he explained. “It’s a bit like sake. Maybe the conditions are good this year but not the next year. This happens all the time. If there is something that is good we buy a lot of it. So this is not like on a monthly basis. It is a question of what is available. The most important thing is if there is a lot of something of good quality, that’s what we will get… The market is huge. Everything is there. It’s not good to go in there thinking I really want to get this particular thing. For example, the rockfish (nodoguro) is there all year round. Maybe it’s not popular now and the price is down, or then it is up. What I do is look for things that are good and at a good price, and when we find it, we just load it into our cart. Customers might say, “Oh there is no rockfish today?” But, that is because there wasn’t enough quantity or quality at the market. Actually in the market now, only 10 to 20 percent of the fish are something I want to purchase. In the market now, most of it is farmed or frozen. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be enough food for people. It used to be that families could buy this type of fish. But now if they want to eat this quality of fish, they have to come to a place like this. In that past, there was more but now it is a struggle to find good things.”
“People often say that we work hard here, but that’s the point. Everyone says they can go to the market, but without people like me, you can’t buy anything. This is even truer now at [the new fish market in] Toyosu. I always used to go to [the old market at] Tsukiji, and I established good relationships with people there. But really, now Toyosu is like a Costco. It has a lot of [interior] walls like a shopping center. To create relationships in a place like that is really difficult. Toyosu is difficult to figure out. In Tsukiji, because there were no walls you could see across the place, like, 'oh, they are selling that over there.' Now every place in the market looks the same.”
We asked if negotiating with sellers takes time. “Yes, it takes time,” he explained with a laugh. “Over there they also have old stuff. And they still have to sell it one way or another. If all you think about is the price and say, “I want it cheaper. I want it cheaper,” then they will sell you something cheap, but no one is going to tell you, “It’s cheap, but it’s getting old….”! In the beginning, I didn’t have any money, and I really cared about the prices. But if you can get good products, even at a high price, you are not going to lose. If you get something good, it will last longer and the customers will also be happy.”
So from his perspective, if he brings in good products, then the performance of the restaurant will take care of itself. “The best arrangements is when the customers, myself and the people are at the market all are getting a good deal. By a good deal, I mean profit. I don’t want myself to profit too much or the market to profit too much on me. I don’t want to profit too much from the customers. I have told this to staff, I just want to see things progress in a natural cycle [of mutual benefit].”
Most of the products Shinpo sells are wild-catch rather than farmed through aquaculture. “The biggest difference between farmed and natural [wild-caught] is with tuna,” Shinpo explained. “Here basically we only use farmed fish in the case filefish [kawa hagi] and tiger prawns [kuruma ebi]. Otherwise, we basically don’t use farmed fish. Actually, the oil from farmed fish is really smelly. Take, the olive flounder [hirame] – it’s been aggressively farmed – and when you get it live it has a firm texture, but after a day or two you if you grill it and taste it, it has a bad smell…. Well, the only fish that really have gotten beyond this level are filefish and tiger prawns. In the market, you can find live filefish in the aquariums, and the farmed ones are actually more expensive than the wild catch! In my restaurant we grill them, fry them, use them for sashimi, and you don’t get the feeling you are dealing with a farmed fish. Of course, there are some people who don’t like that. And there are restaurateurs who won’t use them because they are farmed. But around here there are few restaurants that are really that picky. You really can’t do business just with wild-caught fish. When your business gets to a certain scale, you have to turn to farmed tuna. Places that are really working at it will use frozen bluefin tuna. But once you have crossed that line, then you’re talking about farmed tuna. And that is really fatty! It has a real “oily” (toro) taste, and people use it for sushi. It’s very fatty, and when it’s fresh you don’t notice. But it oxidizes quickly. Every day, the fat oozes out, depending on when you eat it. There are many places cultivating them, and you can’t generalize about all of them. There are some of such high quality you wouldn’t be able to tell with a quick look. You’ll think, ‘that’s a tuna, not bad, very easy,’ so you might buy it. Actually, with wild-catch, you may not be able to find one that easily. But when you try eating it [the cultivate ones], you will think, I don’t want this. Salmon is also popular, isn’t it? And there are many children who want to eat salmon. And with that you also see the quality getting better. The fat is not smelly. But for now, in my restaurant, I don’t want to use it. That’s because it is an industrial product. It is processed in a factory, cut in half and placed in a vacuum pack. I don’t even know when I should throw it away. It is stable. But there are still natural products, and I am wanting to stay with the natural mainstream.”
Clearly alcohol sales are central to Shinpo’s business model, so we asked him about that. “Of course we have sake,” Shinpo said. “Many people have said to me, ‘wouldn’t it be better if you have wine?’ I think if you want wine you should go to a place with wine. It would be nice to have wine, but in this space, it is really hard to manage the wine glasses. I can only serve what we can really manage here.”
“Regarding the sake, as long as people think its tasty, it’s good. Some is dry and some is sweet. Actually a sake tastes different every year, even if you say, ‘Oh, that sake was delicious.’ So I always like to hear a customer ask "What kind of sake do you recommend today?", And then I’ll ask "What kind of sake do you want?" Most people answer ‘dry.’ Some people say ‘sweet.’ So after hearing that, I'll recommend one that I recently drank, the one that I remember, and sometimes it's really delicious. That’s when I will point to something and say, ‘this.’ Usually, It’s something I have drunk and really hit the spot. When someone says’ ‘that’s delicious sake.’ That’s what I want to hear.”
Until its recent move to roomier quarters, one secret to Shinpo’s business success was his highly efficient use of its limited space. Shinpo’s long-term headquarters was on the first floor of a five-story reinforced concrete building. It’s high ceilings and a very solid concrete structure allowed him to construct a wooden platform above the main kitchen and bar area, a small “mezzanine.” Reachable only by a narrow ladder, the wooden mezzanine increased his seating to twenty-eight. With rent being one of the most important fixed costs in a restaurant, this strategy allowed him to increase the number of diners he could serve in the narrow space of his restaurant.
Shinpo’s other tactic is to consistently turn over his tables multiple times in one night. "I'll do about three turns in one night [on busy nights],” Shinpo said. “By reservation, on a fixed time basis. It's not like every day, but it’s three times when I'm the busiest. Usually, it's about two turns." Of course, turning over tables increases profits, but it is also a way of giving more customers a chance to enjoy the restaurant.
A key factor in Shinpo’s success is his own long hours of work. "I'm at the store almost every day by twelve o'clock,” he said. “I'm out at five-thirty in the morning, go home a little bit, come back at around twelve noon, and I'm barely there. I have a child, but I go home after the child sleeps, and he leaves home again before I get up. We almost never meet. That's right. But I can't help going home at 5 o'clock every day. If I get up at 5 it’s not because I am at home. I'm drinking (laughs). "
Of course, Shinpo also has his loyal workers. Between the main shop and the annex shop “Stand Shinpo,” there were six employees, and also many part-time workers. At this point, it is increasingly difficult to find part-time workers, he complained, a problem that is now society-wide and affecting every industry. Will this lack of workers be a problem for Shinpo as he expands even further? We can only guess at this point.
“Keeping a business going is difficult,” Shinpo said. “From the customer’s perspective, you sit down with chopsticks and talk, the beer comes. It feels really easy. But to keep that going… People quitting, and such, there is always something like that. The foodservice business is really hard, cleaning, cooking, all kinds of things. Rather than doing management in an office, however, I really like to be in the action. But I’m not sure how I will feel getting older. Can I keep this up when I am seventy? I doubt it. It wouldn’t be bad just to be running a Starbucks,” he said with a laugh. “Then I could just serve coffee.”
Shinpo is not without his worries, but his decision to expand his restaurant to a bigger location clearly shows he sees a long future for himself in this business. “To bring even more people together, more people happily spending their money, I want to be one of the things that make people happy. I don’t want to make money by scamming people. I just want to see the value of my work in making people happy.”
For Shinpo service is about pleasing his customers, and this is the hard work that he is paid for. This model of business may be old-fashioned, but it has allowed him to expand his business in a very competitive restaurant market. (James Farrer Feb. 4, 2020)
(Interview June 4, 2019, by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer. Copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)