While there’s never a perfect time to launch a new restaurant, there are certainly times you want to avoid, such as when a deadly virus is upending life and forcing people to stay at home.

Back in early February, however, Ryota Kurokawa, owner-chef of Que Pasa in Kyoto, had finally found a location for a second outlet for his much-loved burrito bar that was nearer to the center of the city. That same month, he signed on the dotted line for the lease, taking over the space from a florist. It seemed full speed ahead for what would become Que Pasa Downtown.

But as the restaurant took shape, COVID-19 continued to spread throughout the country. By the time Kurokawa drilled the last screw into place on April 17, he had ditched plans to have any opening party whatsoever.

Kurokawa was unsure if he should open at all, but given the substantial financial investment he felt he had no choice. And so, on April 19, three days after the government extended the state of emergency to the entirety of Japan, he opened the doors to Que Pasa Downtown to little fanfare, the team nervous about the reception they would get.

In both of his restaurants, Kurokawa closed the eat-in sections to concentrate on deliveries and takeout. Despite the unprecedented challenge, Kurokawa says the first week of business was not as bad as he expected: “It was maybe 50 percent of what I expected to do before the spread of the coronavirus.”

Mega munchies: Hibino Beer’s new deluxe set of hor d’oeuvres has proved popular with a wide range of the bar’s customers. | COURTESY OF KEIJI NISHIO, HIBINO BEER
Mega munchies: Hibino Beer’s new deluxe set of hor d’oeuvres has proved popular with a wide range of the bar’s customers. | COURTESY OF KEIJI NISHIO, HIBINO BEER

Ultimately though, on April 27, Kurokawa decided to shut both locations indefinitely in order to protect staff and customers, one of whom had to commute from Shiga Prefecture by train. To support his restaurant and employees, he’s applying for Japan’s small business loan program and hopes to be able to pay his staff until Kyoto’s state of emergency is lifted.

Across the Kamo River from Que Pasa, Shintaro Nakamura has kept his bijou teishoku (set meal) restaurant, Shokudo Marushin, open, but where his space once filled up with neighborhood workers and students drawn from Kyoto University, they have almost all disappeared since the national emergency was enacted.

“I keep the door open for air circulation, and I’ve put disinfectant on the table and seat customers away from each other,” Nakamura says, explaining that it’s an uphill battle as many of his customers are now working from home and students are no longer on campus.

Instead, like many neighborhood restaurants, Nakamura and his wife, Kei, are trying to prop up business by selling bento boxes. But Marushin’s bento comes with a little surprise: an illustrator friend helped him design a QR code that customers can scan to download music and musings from Shintaro’s punk band, Back to Basics, as well as tracks from other independent musicians in Kansai.

“People are understandably nervous because of the coronavirus and I wanted to create a little fun, so this is kind of a musical dessert for them,” Nakamura says.

For Daniel McNellie, owner-chef of Pop! Pizza in Kyoto, delivery sales have compensated for the loss of one of his main revenue streams: live music shows.

“With no end in sight to this whole ordeal, I knew I had to immediately come up with a new game plan to make it through,” McNellie says, explaining that he’s since added a custom 52-centimeter takeout pizza, as well as a slew of new sides and appetizers, to his menu. McNellie also makes deliveries by himself when he can in order to keep prices down for customers, rather than raising the price to compensate for the substantial cut taken by delivery services such as Uber Eats.

“If you really want to support your favorite local shop, please do it directly,” he says.

Craft-beer pub Kyoto Beer Lab has also reinvented how it does business.

“We’re selling takeaway draft and bottle beer at the front door, though to protect our staff and customers we are not allowing people to congregate inside,” says co-founder Tom Ainsworth. One silver lining: COVID-19 sped up Kyoto Beer Lab’s plans to launch an online store and its range of brews are now available nationwide.

Internet sales have also become a lifeline for Keiji Nishio, the president of Hibino Beer in Osaka. Shortly after the nationwide state of emergency was introduced, Hibino began offering bento to go with its lineup of craft beers, and Nishio says the mega deluxe set of 10 different nibbles has “shown us that there are customers out there who we never knew about before.”

However, Nishio says sales are down 90 percent for some of his Osakan counterparts in the industry. To help defray the losses, Nishio, together with Ai Tani of Craft Beer Base, also in Osaka, began a crowdfunding campaign on Campfire to help support the city’s bars. Tickets purchased online can be redeemed at participating bars when the state of emergency is lifted and bars are able to re-open. The campaign has already raised over ¥5 million, more than 1,000 percent of its original ¥500,000 goal.

Happy with its success, Nishio says he looks forward to the day he can “share a toast and a smile with customers at the bar again.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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