How-tos | LIFELINES

'Baby-friendly' Tokyo cafe tells moms to pay to use their own baby food — or go

Although the Japanese government is always announcing plans supposed to alleviate the declining birthrate by making child-raising more attractive, going out and about with small children can be difficult in this country.

When it comes to eating out, the options are generally limited to fast-food joints or the ubiquitous family restaurant chains. Recently, however, there are a number of cafes and restaurants that strive to go the extra mile, promoting themselves as “child-friendly.” This week’s topic comes from reader N, who was decidedly unimpressed with the service encountered at one such establishment when she and her friend took their young babies out for lunch.

“At this cafe, both adults ordered a full set lunch and separate drinks,” N writes. “We sat down to eat and our babies were provided with high chairs, but when we brought out our own food we were pounced upon by the manager, who said that we were not allowed to feed our babies our food. The only thing we were ‘permitted’ to feed our babies were packets of prepackaged baby food that she had on display.

“Despite informing the manager that my baby suffers from allergies, I was told that in no circumstances would we be able to feed our babies our food unless we agreed to pay an additional charge of ¥1,000, or we could leave.”

Frustrated and upset, N and her friend ended up exiting without finishing their own meals. She notes that the cafe also charged for bottled water rather than providing tap water for free, as is generally the norm in Japan.

At some stage or another, most parents with very small children have probably brought along a snack or meal if their offspring were too small to eat the food on the menu. As a mother of three kids myself, it seems reasonable to bring in food for a baby under 12 months if the adults in the group are ordering off the menu. However, as with many things, it doesn’t always work this way in Japan.

The restaurant that N visited is Helianthus in Naka-Meguro. Attached to a children’s boutique of the same name, it was opened in response to customers who wanted to have somewhere to relax with their young children after shopping for clothes. I spoke to the manager who served N and her friend.

Asked about the fairness of charging for the “privilege” of feeding a baby your own food, she explained the reasons behind the policy. At first, it seems, parents were permitted to bring in food for their children, but things got out of hand when some people abused the system, bringing in bentō (boxed lunches) from home or food from other shops even for children clearly old enough to eat off the cafe’s menu. As a result, the cafe added some baby food to the menu and then instigated a blanket charge of ¥500 per child for anyone who wanted to bring in their own food, regardless of the child’s age.

“We aim to provide a space where parents can bring their little ones and relax and enjoy their meal without having to worry about those around them,” the manager said. “However, we are still a business and we have to cover our operating costs, and we need customers to understand this.”

She also pointed out that Helianthus doesn’t charge for the use of their indoor playroom, unlike some similar establishments, which charge an hourly rate or an entrance fee on top of meal costs.

As for charging for bottled water, the manager said that some mothers had been upset when the cafe only offered tap water in the past. Tap water is apparently offered if someone specifically asks for it, but judging from N’s experience, it seems that this policy isn’t always made clear to customers.

I also spoke to the manager at the Kickback Cafe in Chofu, another popular venue for parents and small kids. The children’s menu includes vegan options and organic baby food, and a spacious “mother’s room” is available for feeding and changing children.

While the Kickback Cafe doesn’t go as far as charging when parents bring in food for their children, the manager said they discourage the practice unless a child has allergies.

“In that case, we would hope that the parent would inform us of their child’s needs as soon as they arrive and we would work something out,” the manager said. “In general, however, we expect that parents would order from the menu. If you came to our restaurant with your grandmother, you wouldn’t bring a special meal in for her — it is the same principle.”

Finally, for good measure I consulted a website called Smiley-mom, which reviews child-friendly cafes all over Japan. (www.smiley-mom.com — in Japanese only). Although the owner of the site didn’t respond to my email for a comment, after perusing the reviews, it seems that many of the cafes in the Tokyo area do charge for entrance to their play areas or have a minimum charge for drinks/meals. Opinions and comments from parents varied widely as to what constituted good value for money and what was over the top.

At the end of the day, while most “child-friendly” cafes are probably quite genuine in their wish to help parents, they are still businesses, and dining there may end up being quite an expensive option.

Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK “Nodo Jiman” show, among other things. Send your comments and questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

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