As self-service coffee shop chains saturate the market, their small-scale, often pricey predecessors are feeling the squeeze, and those in Tokyo and Osaka are struggling to survive by focusing on their uniqueness.
According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, there were some 150,000 coffee shops nationwide in the first half of the 1980s.
However, that number had dropped to some 84,000 as of last year.
In the Tokyo metropolitan area alone, the number of coffee shops decreased from roughly 18,000 to some 8,000, while in Osaka Prefecture the figure dropped from about 23,000 to some 13,000.
Cafe Sucre in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, roasts its coffee beans every morning and always has at least 20 kinds of coffee on hand, including its own special blend.
When its owner, Yuko Nirei, 37, opened the shop last year, she had a firm conviction that there would be no need for the cafe to offer food.
“We want our customers to be able to smell the aroma of coffee the moment they enter the shop,” she said. “Offering cheap coffee just for the sake of profit will not (lead to) a long-lasting business.”
As long as her cafe offers good coffee, properly brewed, Nirei added, the shop will be able to weather the onslaught from the big chains.
Towa Food Service Co., which runs four Tsubakiya coffee shops in Ginza and three other areas in Tokyo, tries to maintain space between its tables, and cell phone airwaves are blocked, preventing customers from making or receiving calls.
A cup of coffee is expensive, at 840, yen but a Towa Food Service official said, “Our aim is to create a space where customers can spend a leisurely hour.”
Kiyoshi Ogawa, 48, the third-generation manager of Hiraoka Coffee Shop — which opened in 1921 — in Chuo Ward, Osaka, spent 10 years putting together a bean-roasting manual by watching how his father worked.
“Customers tell us they want to drink our coffee,” he said with pride.
“People in Osaka are particular about taste. They won’t drink coffee if it doesn’t taste good, even if it is cheap,” said Taro Nakamura, 72, president of MJB Coffee Co., which was established 60 years ago in Osaka’s Chuo Ward.
A chain coffee shop opened in the neighborhood two years ago. MJB temporarily lost 10 percent of its customers, but they soon returned, Nakamura said.
“The professional (coffee shops) will take center stage once baby boomers, who know the real taste (of good coffee), get older,” said Kenji Nishinaka, 57, an executive of a prefectural association of coffee shops and restaurants.
Meanwhile, Kazuhiko Maeda, editor of the monthly magazine Cafe & Restaurant, said he believes the key to surviving the coffee shop “ice age” is to offer unique brews.
He said that in addition to original house blends, information is spreading through the grapevine regarding individual coffee shops on such things as their offerings of homemade cakes and jam, and lunch sets with vegetables directly purchased from farmers.
But things are not all rosy for unique coffee shops.
This spring saw the closure of all four Danwashitsu (lounge) Takizawa coffee shops in Tokyo after 39 years in business. They were widely viewed as the forerunners of unique coffee shops, with spacious sofas, quiet background music and waitresses who received training in customer services in company dormitories.
“More and more women became reluctant to enter the dormitories,” President Jiro Takizawa said in explaining why he was compelled to close the shops. “We could not satisfactorily train waitresses to provide better services to our customers, and as such, we could not charge high coffee prices.”
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