Food & Drink | Restaurant Do's and Don'ts

The do's and don'ts of opening a restaurant or bar in Japan

by Jeremy Wilgus

Special To The Japan Times

If you’ve lived and worked in Japan for any length of time, there’s a chance you’ve at least daydreamed about how great it would be to run your own restaurant or bar.

The idea seems so much more exciting than a standard office job, so much more interesting than another year of teaching English.

Establishment owners can set their own hours and don’t need to deal with nagging bosses, so the thinking goes. They can make money just by providing a place for their friends to come and hang out. It’s like an expat’s dream — and in March of 2015, I fulfilled that dream when my wife and I opened a restaurant in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. Then, in June of the same year, I became part of a statistic: the nearly 60 percent of restaurants that fail before their first anniversary, according to an Ohio State University study.

The reality is there are hundreds of ways a restaurant or bar can fail. Poor location, failure to understand and track costs, inexperienced management, bad food and a lack of understanding of what the market will sustain are just a few.

Sometimes it can even be simple bad luck. In my case, the structure that housed our shop lost its lease and was torn down. I knew it was a possibility when I signed our rental agreement, but we were assured it was highly unlikely. My wife and I had a great location, built a loyal following, received positive reviews and generated good word of mouth, and although we only lasted three months, we were already turning a profit. We were lucky beyond all expectation, until the one time that we weren’t, and that was the end of our restaurant.

As a result of my experience, people sometimes ask me for advice on their own ventures. My first response is very simple: Don’t do it.

I do realize, however, that no matter what I say people are going to try. And despite my warnings, Tokyo is full of successful businesses, so there must be a way. With that in mind, in this column I intend to outline the pitfalls and give pointers for driving up the odds of success, looking at everything from investment, licensing and regulations and location to menu choices, design, promotion, staffing and more.

To start off, that daydream of how much fun it will be is largely fantasy. Yes, you do set your own hours, but unless they revolve around the hours that will attract customers, your business will fail. And no, you won’t have a nagging boss — you’ll be left alone (or with your partner) with the need to push yourself 14 to 15 hours a day to succeed.

You’re going to need to appear happy and full of energy in front of your customers no matter how tired you are, or how badly things are going. And, through no fault of your own, you won’t be seeing the friends that said they’d be there all the time. Sure, they’ll stop in from time to time, but they won’t be there every night, because who wants to eat the same thing all the time? And when they do stop in, you’ll probably be too busy to do more than say hello because, with luck, you’ll have other customers to attend to.

Having said that, if your heart is still set, or if you know someone who is considering taking the plunge, please read on. It won’t all be doom and gloom. Opening a restaurant was the most brutal, painful, exhausting job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never loved anything more, never felt better about anything I’ve done.

But for now, some basic advice: If you want to start a restaurant or bar, you’re going to need to see how it’s done. Find a place that’s in line with what you want to do and get a job there. A few hours a week is a start, but more is better, because one surefire avenue to restaurant failure is to have an owner who has never worked in one. Get your hands dirty. Get some experience. Watch, listen, ask questions and keep notes. Oh, and start saving money, because it’s going to take more than you think.

This is the first of a six-part series that will appear on the first Sunday of the month through March 2018.