Restaurants in Japan are navigating rough waters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, inspiring new ideas as they try to come up with ways to remain afloat.

As the virus spreads, more people are refraining from dining out, especially in big gatherings. This has led to cancellations of both welcome and farewell parties that are commonly held this time of year.

According to a report released on Thursday by TableCheck Inc., the average daily number of reservations this month at 4,347 establishments it surveyed plummeted 40 percent on the year. The bigger the group of diners, the more likely they were to drop their reservations. The percentage of reservations being cancelled was up about 3.6 times for groups of 10 or more, compared with early January before the outbreak, according to the restaurant reservation service provider.

This weekend was likely even harder for the industry after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike urged residents to stay home amid a sharp rise in cases. A potential lockdown of the capital also threatens to cut off their customers.

To shore up flagging revenues, some businesses are already branching out into takeout, while others are seeing unusual kinds of support from their patrons.

A French restaurant and bar named Scene near Hachioji Station on the Keio Line earlier this month launched takeout and delivery services. Due to reduced traffic and numerous cancellations, the restaurant suffered about a 70 percent year-on-year sales drop this month.

It is selling ¥1,000 boxed lunches, or bentos, and more luxurious ¥19,800 platters containing ise-ebi Japanese spiny lobster. Manager Naotaka Yoshimi said one aim is to “contribute to sales,” which is actually working out to some extent. He envisions the luxury platter being served to celebrate school graduations and other big events for customers who are stuck at home.

Through Wednesday, it sold 220 of the ¥1,000 bento boxes and five platters, Yoshimi said.

French restaurant Bistro Gauche in the Hachioji area earlier this month started distributing three kinds of bento lunches three days a week — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

As the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s request to avoid unnecessary outings will last until at least April 12, chef and owner Hiroo Suzuki said he plans to devise a nighttime takeout menu next month as part of his “second round of coronavirus measures.”

Companies outside the dining industry are also trying to drum up support for restaurants through new online drives to keep them in business.

Gourmet community app KitchHike Inc. on March 1 launched a project to sell meal tickets that can be used at registered establishments in the future — when customers are ready to visit after the pandemic subsides — on its app and website. The idea is for restaurants to maintain sales even when walk-in business is down, and without having to pay commissions to KitchHike.

This bento boxed lunch is offered by French restaurant and bar Scene, which is located near Hachioji Station. | COURTESY OF NAOTAKA YOSHIMI
This bento boxed lunch is offered by French restaurant and bar Scene, which is located near Hachioji Station. | COURTESY OF NAOTAKA YOSHIMI

KitchHike’s project lets customers purchase tickets plus pay a five percent transaction fee. Restaurants receive the proceeds twice a month.

Patrons who would like to support their favorite establishments can recommend them for the project. KitchHike will set up a ticket sales page for the individual businesses.

“Our basic assumption is that it should be difficult for restaurants to raise their voices” and ask for help amid the outbreak, said Makiko Kawakami, who is in charge of business development at KitchHike.

The project is a way for customers to help struggling businesses stave off bankruptcies and convey gratitude to the restaurants, she said.

There were more than 80 member establishments, most in the Kanto region, as of Saturday, but the number is growing every day, Kawakami said. As of Saturday, 470 meal tickets were sold through the project.

Tickets are valid until the end of June for the time being, but this could be extended depending how long the coronavirus crisis lasts.

A similar service is offered by Fukuoka-based internet venture Gigi Inc. Its project, called saki-meshi (advance meal), asks customers to pay for meals from registered stores as well as 10 percent in commission fees. The customers can then visit the establishments within 180 days to eat the meals.

The restaurants then collect the proceeds once a week or once a month. As with KitchHike’s project, no refunds will be given if a business fails.

“Your favorite restaurants may need cash right now and might be gone next month,” Founder and CEO Ryosuke Imai, who stressed that coronavirus has already pushed some restaurants out of business.

“I am hoping that people come to think ‘we want to support the restaurants in ways we can.’”

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