The Family Restaurant in Changing Times
There are many family-owned restaurants in Nishiogi, some of which have been in business since the pre-war era, with fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and sons working together to manage all the necessary tasks. However, due to the aging of owners, the absence of successors, and urban development, such businesses are gradually disappearing. In this difficult environment, how are some family-owned restaurants surviving? We interviewed a family-owned soba restaurant in Nishiogi to find some clues to its longevity.
Soba Yasudaya was founded by Yasuda Chitose in December 1959 and is currently run by the second generation Yasuda Katsutoshi and Yasuda Mikiko. Even though Yasuda is a “soba restaurant” It has a very eclectic menu, with set meals, as well as soba. The family lives in a house right behind the restaurant, which they own. Decades ago, they rebuilt the restaurant itself as a three-story structure with small apartments on the upper floors. This type of owner-operated business is thus in a much less precarious financial position than newer restaurants paying rent. But they face other problems, especially the problem of succession.
We talked to Mikiko in the mid-afternoon lull between lunch and dinner. They don’t stop service, so orders were still coming in as we talked. Katsutoshi, who was busy with intermittent orders, still stopped by for a few comments. “’ Grandpa,’ my husband’s father, was the first to run the restaurant,” Mikiko said, referring to her husband's father as Grandpa. Before that, he had been running a café in Gotokuji in Setagaya for five years. He came here looking for a better location…. He didn’t know anyone here. His family home is Iwai in Chiba. ‘Grandma’ is from Tsuchiura in Ibaraki, so neither of them knew this area at all. Grandpa was a Japanese cuisine chef. He had trained in Ginza and Shinbashi, places like that, but had not made soba. But, after he got together with Grandma, they decided to open a soba shop, and that’s how they started out first in Gotokuji.”
When they first opened on the old East-West highway named Itsukaichi Kaidō, it was a busy shopping street with a multitude of small specialized shops. "Back then, there were no convenience stores,” Mikiko said. “There were fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers, and all the shopping streets, but there was no supermarket."
There were 70 shops in each shopping street.” Katsutoshi continued. “It is officially called ‘Itsukaichi Shopping Street.’ There were butcher shops and greengrocers. There were two or three izakaya alone. There were several greengrocers and cleaners. When my father came here, there were about three soba shops around. My father came in here without knowing this…. There were three soba restaurants and two or three Chinese restaurants, and I wonder why he opened a shop in such a place. But now, we are the only ones left!"
When Chitose opened up the restaurant it was a kind of neighborhood canteen with a broad menu. “We already had omelets back then. It was a lot of work. Steak [now on the menu] is a new thing. If you had to make a generalization, it’s the kind of place where katsudon is more popular than tempura [a more typical or traditional dish in a sobaya]. Grandpa was a trained Japanese cuisine chef, but there were also some Western dishes [yōshoku] on the menu.”
Although he grew up in and around the restaurant, Katsutoshi didn’t start working there until high school. “I didn’t think about it until high school,” Katsutoshi said. “And I didn’t help out so much either.” When he was a child his mother’s younger brother and his wife were helping out at the shop. Then they decided to open up their own restaurant in Tachikawa, also called Yasudaya.
As for Katsutoshi, he began working for the Yabu soba shop in Kichijoji and then a ramen shop, only returning to working in the family business when he was 21. This was a boom time for the family business, with an emphasis on delivery. "It was during the bubble era [of the 1980s], at that time. It was just when I entered. There was a big high rise over there. Now it is all residences, but at the time there were companies from the first floor to the seventh floor. There were lots of companies around here then. It was the same everywhere. After that, there was a big water department office over there. Customers came from these places. There was also a construction boom in those days. We would do deliveries to the sites. There weren't many lunch bento services yet, and there would be an order of ten or fifteen bowls from one company. A few years later, the companies started ordering from bento services.”
Yasudaya, with its voluminous and reasonably priced lunches, still is popular with the tradesmen, craftsmen, and construction workers in the area. “They're a lot of craftsmen [shokunin] who come from the construction sites to here for lunch,” Mikiko said. “Those here today are craftsmen. There have always been a lot of craftsmen here. People who are building a house will be here for a time. They will come in every day, and ask ‘Oh, what am I going to have today.’ And at the end of the job, they will say, ‘today is my last day.’ And I will say, ‘please come again.’ I repeat that sort of encounter again and again. It’s always been like that.”
On the weekends most customers are families from the neighborhood since the construction sites are on break. There are also people in the area who work on Sunday to meet a deadline at a site nearby.
Most of the company workers also eat lunch on the weekdays. “This kind of customer has really decreased,” Mikiko said. “There used to be a lot more companies around here. Even bit ones like Shiseido. That office now closed down. We did a big delivery service at lunch back then.”
“It’s also a change in the times,” said Katsutoshi. “In the past, it seems people would stay at the workplace and wait for a delivery. Now they prefer to come in and eat – nowadays.”
“Yes,” Mikiko said “It has changed. Now people prefer to come in, and then later they maybe will try takeout. But if you come in it will be faster than takeout. If you order takeout I will have to keep you waiting because the in-house customers will be given priority. So if people call in for takeout, I will have to tell them, ‘it will take some time.’ In some places, people will come for lunch because it is cheaper. But here it is not a lunch price. It is a set menu. [Working people] will think I can spend so much every day for lunch. It is ideal for them that they can pay only about a thousand yen and still get some change back.”
Few Tokyo workers spend extravagantly on lunch. A survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan government asked residents how much they paid for lunch on weekdays when eating out or purchasing food outside. 34.1% spend between 500 and 800 yen and another 23.2% spend between 800 and 1000 yen, the two most popular categories. Just 11.8% spend more than 1000 yen, and 23% actually spend less than 500 yen. A set lunch at Yasudaya under 1000 yen is in the normal range, but not at all on the low end. It is, however, a filling and tasty meal, explaining the predominance of working men among regular customers.
Yasudaya has always been a family-operated business, with a shifting cast of family members. “At first it was my husband’s uncle and his wife, the ones who went to Tachikawa,” Michiko said. “After that my mother-in-law’s sister came to work, for about ten years, I think. She came over to help out. Then I came in. That was 20 years ago, in the year 2000. We’ve been married twenty years, and my oldest child is now 20 years old.”
Mikiko is from the neighborhood. “Before I came over here, I used to work at the Santoku Supermarket, in the place that is now the [Asahi] bicycle shop. I worked there as an employee and Katsu used to come in there to buy meat. That’s how we met.”
Mikiko worked in the supermarket until 2004, before joining the family business. We asked her if she hesitated in coming to work in a family-owned business. “I didn’t have any hesitation at all,” she said. “During my four years at university, I worked at a hamburger shop called Sandine, right outside the ticket gate of the Hamamatsucho station. Basically, it was working on your feet. I did it for four years. After graduation, I worked at the supermarket. And the supermarket was also a standing job, a customer service job. So I didn’t think, ‘Is it going to be okay?’ Not at all. Of course, I couldn’t do the job without being taught. Now I do everything. My husband makes soba noodles. But except for making the soba and tempura, I can do everything else.”
The couple is a bit shorthanded now though. “Now it is just me and my husband most of the time,” Mikiko said. “In February my mother-in-law had a fall, and now she is in rehabilitation. But when I started there was Grandpa and Grandma, and the aunt, and us, so five people. My husband has an older sister. She is three years older than him. She married and lives far away in Musashi Sunagawa. Now with Grandma in this condition, she comes in for a half week, on Thursday and Friday, and helps out. Grandpa comes in for the lunch service. He is 89 years old but he still cooks all the tempura at lunch. He does this every day. Next year he will be 90 years old.”
Basically, the shop has been a family affair for nearly all its history. Only once for a short time did the owners hire a part-time worker, right after the aunt and uncle set up their own business in Tachikawa. Working times in a family business are long. Since the couple lives in a house directly behind the restaurant, they can shift between work and family duties.
“I have work to do at home,” Mikiko said. “So I come in around 10 o’clock, clean the store, then go home around 11 or 12 o’clock. My husband comes to the restaurant around 8:30, makes soup stock, and makes noodles. My husband goes back a bit earlier, but we usually both go back around 11 at night. Grandpa usually comes early in the morning. We used to go home earlier at night, but now we are not good early in the morning so we try to get as much done as we can at night, so we can do different work in the morning, buying things that are missing for lunch, or ordering things from the greengrocer.”
We asked if such long hours working together doesn’t lead to frictions.
“Oh, sure,” Mikiko said. “But if you have a quarrel, you can't help but keep talking to each other. You can't help but listen to the customer's order. So, even if you quarrel, it won't last long. Sometimes, ah,... (she laughs, not finishing the sentence). Work is always the same, and even when I go home, it's the same, so we divide that area off and just flip a mental switch.”
Katsutoshi interjected, “The one who gives in wins."
“That's right, that's right,” Mikiko said. “When one of them gets irritated, and the other gets irritated. If they don't keep calm, they’ll start arguing. So I’ll just drop it today. It’s better to read the atmosphere. That’s how you keep things going.”
The trick to doing well in a family business is to say what you need to say, however.
"After all, there are times when you have to be careful about words when you are talking to someone else, but there are also times when you can say what you have to say as a relative,” Mikiko said. “Rather than penning it all up and getting stressed out, it is better to just let it all out, and then it gets resolved. "
Both partners agree is important to try out new things. “Up until now we have really focused on tempura,” Mikiko said. “Our main thing was has been set meals and rice omelets. Now, my husband’s friend said we should try serving a tendon. Up until then, we have been doing the katsudon set and the and the oyakodon. ‘Everyone is doing tendon set now,’ he said. Twenty years ago, the companies ordered an overwhelming number of katsudon sets. People would have katsudon for lunch. Men really like it. Maye noodles would take to long to eat. And maybe rice will fill you up more, meat and rice.”
The restaurant also has its own style and flavor, Mikiko explained. “My father-in-law didn’t train in a soba restaurant, so his way of making soup stock is different. He doesn't make kaeshi (made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar). He makes one otsuyu for the hot noodles and one for the cold noodles. It’s his original recipe. He also makes his own sauce for the katsudon. Everone says it is different. He adds a little soy sauce into it for the tendon sauce.”
When Katsutoshi and Mikiko married, Katsutoshi was still mainly in charge of delivery. So he couldn’t get around to renewing the menu. When he was entrusted with the cooking, gradually they made some changes, but not without some pushback from the older generation. For example, Katsutoshi came up with the idea of making a tendon with cold shrimp tempura. “My father was against it,” Katsutoshi said. “It will increase the things we have to order. We already order the large shrimp for the nabeyaki udon and the tempura. ’ The thing is the tendon is made with two small shrimp and vegetables.”
“But, slowly, we began to do things the way we wanted, and he accepted it,” Katsutoshi continued. “In the old days, chilled tanuki soba was made with agedama, cucumbers, and naruto. I wanted to put one fried shrimp on the tanuki soba. Grandpa said that this way he would also fry the agedama after an order came in, so he changed to doing it this way…. It was basically ‘I’ll do it if you tell me how to do it.’ We could just line the things up, and say, ‘this is it,’ and he would do the tempura. For example, in the past, we didn’t have cold fried mochi. We only had ‘power udon’ [udon with fried mochi on it]. But I went to a lot of shops and visited. I found that fried mochi was really popular, especially with women. It’s really good on top of curry udon for example. So we decided to make fried mochi. I can be used as a topping on udon or soba.
Yasuda makes their noodles from scratch. At one point they made three kinds of noodles themselves: soba, udon, and Chinese noodles. They made them all on one machine. But the work was getting to be too much for Katsutoshi. “After a while, Grandpa couldn’t work for such a long time,” Mikiko said. “He used to lie down and rest here during breaks [and continue working for dinner], but now he can only work at lunchtime.”
With both the elderly couple aging, it was impossible to keep up the old routines of the shop. “In that case, we had to think about ourselves,” Mikiko said. “We had to think about what it is possible to sell and what is easy to do. We cut a few items and decided we would no longer make our own Chinese noodles. There are now so many specialty ramen shops. There are, though, for many years, many people who like ramen from soba shops. So for some people that was disappointing. But really, out of many orders, there would be only one or two for Chinese noodles. And then the delivery would be delayed. So to keep delivery on time, we had to cut the menu.”
They do have kishimen on the menu. “It is famous in Nagoya,” said Mikiko. “The texture is really good. Only kishimen is not homemade. We use dried. Noodles. The soup is a Kansai-style warm soup. Then bonito flakes are added to create a second stock. We recommend the chicken kishimen. This is also served with a set meal. Many people order it.”
The continuance of a family business like this depends on a successful transition between generations. We asked if there might be a third-generation owner, since her eldest son is now twenty. “When my son participated in the ‘half-coming-of-age ceremony’ at age ten, he said he wanted to run a soba shop. But now looking at the current situation [he is twenty], he said, ‘I wonder if shouldn’t do something else.’ He has always like kendo, and now he is thinking of becoming a police officer. I wish my son could take over, but he is allergic to buckwheat. He can’t eat it.”
The uncertainty of succession is not unique to this restaurant. “There was a rice shop and a tofu shop on the Otome Road [the busy shopping street leading to Nishiogi Station],” Mikiko said. “In the end, there was no one to take over the shop, so the family who was doing it moved away.”
The number of shops in the Itsukaichi Kaido Shopping Street (shotengai) is down by over half, Katsutoshi said. There were about 70 at the peak but most have closed because of the aging out of the owners. The only event that keeps the street alive is the matsuri (temple festival) which is held in the Fall at the Kasuga Shrine further down Itsukaichi Kaido. The connections among families in the shopping streets are still maintained through this event. Yasudaya participates by providing meals to everyone who is having a festival. After the festival is over, a celebration is held, and people who carry or help the portable shrine participate. The Yasudas’ daughter was also participating this year. “People want to eat good food, so they join in,” Mikiko said.
Since the number of participants is shrinking the neighboring shopping streets (merchants associations) also seem to be combining their efforts for the matsuri. The three nearby shopping streets, which are all quite small, have their own portable shrines but they meet up in the middle and do the parade together. “After all, it would be lonely with just one,” Mikiko said. “In some cases, there are no young people at all,” she said. “There is only a cassette tape playing music in the shinshujo (the stand where sake is offered to the gods and shared among participants).”
As the old-fashioned family-run shops and shopping streets disappeared, the events in the town also begin to disappear, and the town feels emptier.
A half-century ago, a young cook and his wife moved to Suginamiku. They were able to buy a place and start a restaurant. During Japan’s high-growth period, they were able to rebuild it into an apartment building. They bought another house to live in on the street behind. This kind of process of investment and asset building is really unimaginable for a young couple moving to Nishi-Ogikubo today. The restaurant industry is currently understaffed and every restaurant is looking for employees. Now, labor costs are heavy. Real estate is expensive. In the past, a family business may have been one of the excellent models of restaurant management. But now with rising costs, changing family forms, and corporatization of the market, the family-owned business is not an easy model to sustain (James Farrer. Oct 7, 2020).
(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura July 5, 2020; Japanese transcription and Japanese language editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation and English writing by James Farrer. Copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)