It’s a Friday in early July at 3:45 p.m. and a line is forming in front of notable Meguro restaurant Tonkatsu Tonki. Within minutes, every seat in the open-format eatery will be taken by customers hungry for Tonki’s signature egg, flour and panko-coated tonkatsu (pork cutlet). It feels like a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, but Izuhi Yoshihara, the shop’s proprietor, admits that the past months have been the most difficult in the 91-year-old establishment’s history.
Across town, LalaChai, a fast-casual Thai restaurant in Hatagaya, prepares its kitchen for a night of takeout orders of its accessible curries and craft beers. After opening its doors in February, LalaChai endured a difficult stretch of luck before retooling its business model in response to diminishing numbers of in-store diners. For Hitoshi Nakayama, a former bartender and first-time restaurant owner, delivery has been a revelation.
And in Ginza, Mark Sekita, chef-owner of Mark’s Table, reads about a spike of COVID-19 cases that will inevitably lead to reservation cancellations. Since opening in 2018, Mark’s, which serves new American dishes made with Japanese ingredients in a 12-seat space, has had little trouble attracting high-end customers. After shutting down during Japan’s state of emergency, however, Sekita has had to find new ways to refill his dining room.
These three restaurants, serving different cuisines to different clientele in different neighborhoods, share one common goal: surviving the pandemic.
After causing an initial sales slump in February, by March the pandemic had spread through Asia, Europe and America. Businesses in Tokyo struggled to negotiate “strong requests” from city and state officials, such as ending alcohol service at 8 p.m.
“We were thrown into a world that didn’t know right from left, in terms of how to handle the coronavirus,” says LalaChai’s Nakayama. “Every week in March, our bank balance decreased by hundreds of thousands of yen.”
Finally, in April, a voluntary shutdown was announced in seven prefectures, including Tokyo. Unlike other countries with large outbreaks, the Japanese government was unable to legally order restaurants to close, but they could firmly suggest it.
The day before the shutdown was to begin, Tonki held a staff-wide meeting and decided to close its doors for its duration. But after one month, it began doing takeout during lunch hours, which helped it retain the entirety of its employees, even those working part time.
“We treasure the customers,” says Yoshihara, “but we equally treasure the staff. A lot of them are artisans, who are irreplaceable.”
Sekita, who worked at Gramercy Tavern in New York before opening Mark’s Table, wasn’t able to offer shifts to the part-time help who supplemented his cooking and hosting duties. But with so much of his restaurant’s allure being about interaction with the chef and hearing about the context of every dish, he felt that when it came to to-go orders, the ends did not justify the means.
“A lot of people tried different things,” says Sekita. “I think the challenge was that everybody had to do it very quickly. Overnight, you had to think about what you could do to keep cash flowing in.
“When you’re a restaurant like ours,” he continues, “you’re taking these coursed dishes and cramming them into cardboard boxes and praying that the bicyclist gets it there in a decent amount of time. You have to think about all of these things, and then wonder, ‘Is it worth it?’”
For LalaChai, it was. The restaurant decided to pare down its part-time employees’ shifts and transition to a takeout and delivery-only model throughout the shutdown.
“We started reaching people who wouldn’t normally come to the restaurant,” says Nakayama. “In our current situation… takeout service is definitely the way to go.”
The Thai restaurant is also exploring new revenue streams like a subscription service and an online marketplace for merchandise and other food products.
Meanwhile, as case numbers in Tokyo seemed to stabilize in June, all three restaurants moved toward resuming regular service.
“I remember when we had our reopening,” says Yoshihara. “I went out to see the line and it was all regulars. I bowed to every one of them, saying ‘thank you.’”
But even if customers were ready to dine out again, in a time when crowds and confined spaces are equally frowned upon, it can be difficult to reconcile what a restaurant is and what it should be. Social-distancing measures further the disconnect.
“I don’t think I ever had the fear that we wouldn’t reopen,” says Sekita, “but I think there was this feeling of, when we do reopen, what is that going to look like?”
The same concerns loom at Tonki, which used to seat around 35 guests in its downstairs area and dozens more upstairs. Now, it keeps a buffer seat between groups and seats the upstairs only sparingly.
“Having the customers close together was always a part of our appeal,” says Yoshihara. “The feeling of busyness, people running around and eating close to each other. And now we can’t do that. It’s a shame. But we can’t afford any risks.”
LalaChai has noticed that even after in-store dining has become available, many of its newfound customers have continued to gravitate toward takeout.
“These customers have their reasons, besides for coronavirus, for why they prefer takeout,” he says. “But that’s perfectly fine, since they’re ordering from us two or three times a week.”
All three restaurants are still dealing with a noticeable decrease in sales, as well as a dramatic shift in expectations in what they thought was going to be an Olympic year in Tokyo, which would have led to a surge of international customers. The very reason Nakayama decided to open LalaChai in 2020 was to market it to those visiting for July’s Games.
“Our foreign customer base has been lost for now,” says Tonki’s Yoshihara, who says that, prior to the pandemic, foreign visitors accounted for as much as 50 percent of customers on a busy day. “I’m sure there were hard times in the past, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, this is no doubt the toughest time we’ve ever gone through.”
The tough times will not end soon.
To follow today’s news is to be constantly reminded of COVID-19’s unpredictability. For those who have had difficulty maneuvering through the year, another shutdown sounds like a death knell.
“I don’t think any business is going to be able to take another shutdown and not think about closing as a potential option,” says Sekita, bluntly. “You have to wonder if it makes sense, fiscally. And for some places, it’s not going to.”
Nakayama, meanwhile, remains more philosophical.
“If the world really starts collapsing, I’ll consider closing,” he says. “But I think changing your thinking depending on the circumstances is necessary. It is clearly a difficult period, but the restaurants that are doing well are able to create new circumstances.”
In recent weeks, many restaurants across the world have met their end at the hands of the pandemic, often without the opportunity to serve a final meal. Those searching for the courage to carry on need only consider their responsibility to the community they’ve built.
As Yoshihara considers Tonki’s almost century-long history and imagines writing its final chapter, his voice cracks. “We don’t think we can afford to close the restaurant again,” he says.
“We operate in the belief that we will keep going. There are generations of people who have come into this restaurant. And there are people out there who have said that they want our tonkatsu to be their last meal that they ever eat. For them, we have to stay open.”
Translation assistance from Ryuzo Tsustui and Mitchell Lee.