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Restaurant sales in Japan in 2020 plunged 15.1% from the previous year on an all-store basis, the steepest fall since statistics began in 1994, due to the fallout from the new coronavirus epidemic, the Japan Food Service Association said Monday.

The number of customers at pubs and other places offering alcoholic beverages fell by half, with many people refraining from having drinking parties and dining out amid the spread of the virus.

Fast food chains serving Western-style items, such as hamburgers, enjoyed a 5.5% increase in sales while all the other types of dining establishments suffered falling sales.

Izakaya pub sales plummeted 47.7% as a number of loss-making outlets were closed. Sales plunged 57.3% at other pubs and establishments serving alcohol, and more than 20% at family restaurants, which rely on eat-in customers.

Restaurant sales had been on a recovery trend since bottoming out in April to May last year, when the government's first state of emergency was in place over the pandemic.

But sales in December last year fell 15.5% year on year as people stopped short of holding year-end parties and other gatherings over meals due to the resurgence of the virus.

Earlier this month, the government declared a fresh state of emergency over the virus. An official of the association expressed concerns that the fresh emergency may deal a further blow to izakaya and other establishments that were already struggling amid the virus crisis.

The fresh state of emergency, which is slated to last until Feb. 7, covers 11 prefectures, including Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures.

Restaurant and bar owners in Tokyo, meanwhile, are racking their brains for new ideas for survival, such as targeting solo customers.

At Bar Zikkai, a cafe and bar in the posh Ginza district where some 3,000 books are on display, solo customers were seen silently reading while enjoying alcohol and other beverages.

Since the new state of emergency took effect on Jan. 8, the store has been focusing more on solo customers and rejecting entry by groups of three or more people in principle. Pairs of visitors are asked to sit separately and refrain from talking, except when making orders.

"I want to reduce the infection risk for my staff," Haruna Hijikata, the 32-year-old manager of Bar Zikkai, said while noting that the store previously had "a lively atmosphere with its employees and customers enjoying conversations."

"Our customers include many who come alone, and we adopted a strategy to enable solo customers to read books more comfortably," Hijikata said.

Dokutsuya, a ramen restaurant in the city of Musashino in Tokyo, has moved up its opening time to 6 a.m. to make up for the loss of revenue from closing early under the state of emergency.

"We've started to have new customers, such as salaried employees before going to work and mothers after getting their children off" to school or kindergarten, Ryu Yamamoto, the 37-year-old manager of Dokutsuya, said.

The measure is "part of our efforts to continue running the business," Yamamoto said, expressing hopes that the early opening will attract more and more new customers.

A grilled food restaurant in Shinjuku Ward is offering a one-hour five-course meal during the emergency period as a way for it to comply with the authorities' request for closing by 8 p.m. while responding to customers' wishes to have dinners at the restaurant from 7 p.m. It usually offers a nine-course meal that lasts for two hours.

"Each of the nine dishes has its own meaning, so there were things we didn't want to change as we run this business," the restaurant's manager, 44, said.

"But we have to respond flexibly to the circumstances," he said, noting that the business situation is tough amid the virus crisis.

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