America’s culinary community can’t get enough of Japan. We’re beyond eating sushi and slurping ramen; now brands like Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, Rene Redzepi’s Noma, and Chad Robertson’s Tartine have zeroed in on Tokyo for their newest locations.
Which begs a couple of questions: What does it take to open a restaurant in Japan, and what is dining really like there? OpenTable has offices in Tokyo, so we have unique insight into the country’s restaurant scene and industry trends. Recently we were thrilled to host Yoshitaka Hayashi, Chairman of the restaurant group Wondertable, at OpenTable HQ in San Francisco. His group operates 60 restaurants, which they organize in three segments. The first are what they call “inbound” restaurants imported from overseas, such as the Brazilian Barbacoa, Lawry’s the Prime Rib, and Union Square Tokyo, an offshoot of New York’s Union Square Cafe. The second segment is “outbound,” restaurants created in Japan and franchised to overseas, such as Mo-Mo Paradise, a shabu-sukiyaki hot pot restaurant. Finally, there are the “domestic” brands, created and operated in Japan.
We sat down with Hayashi to talk about what makes dining in Japan unique, his biggest challenges, and what makes a successful concept. Here are 10 things we learned during his visit.
1. To stand out in the market, you have to be authentic.
The first brand Wondertable brought to Japan was Barbacoa, a Brazilian churrascaria concept; the company now operates six locations.
“We opened the first one 20 years ago,” says Hayashi. “At that moment, I think maybe two or three companies operated [barbacoa restaurants], but the others just imitated. Only ours are the authentic ones, franchised from Brazil. We created the market, so now we’re in first place. Barbacoa is one of the most profitable restaurants right now.”
2. Unique, specialized experiences are the most successful.
“I don’t want to fight with somebody,” Hayashi says. “If I try to fight, maybe you have to cut the price or close down — so many headaches. So what we try to do is differentiate from the others. That’s the brand strategy.”
Instead of opening a regular Italian restaurant, Wondertable opened Obica, a mozzarella bar. By specializing in a specific product and experience the group was able to create a niche, instead of operating in a space flooded with competition.
3. Dining time is shorter in Japan than in the U.S.
While restaurants in the United States will turn tables twice or even three times over the course of dinner service, in Japan most restaurants turn only once. According to Hayashi, most Japanese restaurants will be packed at 7 p.m., but by 9 or 9:30, seats are empty.
4. It’s easier to open a restaurant in Japan.
In the U.S. the barrier of entry into the restaurant business is high because of the many regulations required by law, but not so in Japan. “Everybody can start,” says Hayashi.
He adds that while many of the more affordable restaurants here are chains, in Japan the mom-and-pop shop restaurants are inexpensive. Large restaurant companies are not as common, either.
5. There’s no professional restaurant talent in Japan.
Wondertable operates 60 restaurants but employs only 200 full-time staffers. An additional 1,800 are part-time, and of those Hayashi estimates 1,000 to 1,200 are students.
“Here, there’s the school for restaurant management, but we don’t have any,” he says, adding that there’s also no zone system for waiters, and no tipping. (Some restaurants charge a service fee, but that’s part of overall sales.) He also believe social status is higher for a GM in the U.S. than in Japan.
“In Japan, good service depends on [a server’s] personality, but in the States good service is based on training. In the States, there’s a market for workers. If somebody wants to open a restaurant, they hire a good chef and good General Manager. It doesn’t work in Japan, because there’s no professional labor market.”
6. Japanese diners go out to restaurants to eat, not to be entertained.
Hayashi sums it up: “In Japan, the restaurant is a place to eat. Here, the restaurant is a place to have fun.” He says people in Japan talk about “what” they want to eat, not “where” — it’s about the food, not the overall experience.
7. Professional restaurant reviews don’t matter.
Restaurant critics in the U.S. have clout; a New York Times review can make or break a restaurant opening. “In Japan, we don’t care,” says Hayashi. He adds that people do read reviews from restaurant guests on sites like Tabelog, but they focus more on the content of the reviews than the number of stars.
8. In Japan, no one waits at the bar.
Bars are a huge part of restaurant culture in the United States, for seating walk-ins and giving people a place to wait for their tables. Hayashi says most Japanese restaurants don’t even have bars. “At Union Square Tokyo we have a bar, but it took almost five years for people to come.”
9. Private dining is more popular in Japan.
Hayashi believes that Japanese people are more shy than Americans overall, and as a result, they’re less likely to interact with the staff at a restaurant. “Japanese prefer private dining,” he says. “They just come to eat.”
10. Japanese diners are accustomed to international cuisines.
It’s not uncommon for home cooks in Japan to prepare Indian curries, Italian pastas, and Chinese dishes, in addition to Japanese foods. “Everybody gets used to eating those international foods,” says Hayashi. “If people go to an Italian restaurant or a Chinese restaurant, they don’t feel that this is an ‘international restaurant’ — it’s characteristic of the dining scene in Japan.”