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With patrons missing, 20% of Tokyo restaurants keep shorter hours

  • November 3, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 1:22 p.m.
  • English Press

SHOSUKE KATO, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Despite the lifting of pandemic-related business restrictions, nearly a fifth of restaurants in Tokyo have maintained shorter operating hours due to uncertainty over the return of customers.  


The Japanese capital stopped asking restaurants to cut operating hours last Monday as coronavirus cases continued to decline. But a visual survey of 500 eateries conducted by Nikkei reporters the next day revealed that 21%, or 105 locations, have not returned to normal operating times.


Working from home has become commonplace due to the coronavirus pandemic, robbing restaurants of traffic from nighttime commuters. They may need to alter evening operations or make other changes to adapt to changing customer behavior. 


“I wonder if the patrons who used to go out to drink late at night will return,” said a 48-year-old bar manager in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. The bar previously stayed open until 5 a.m. the next morning, but now closing time has been pushed back to 12:30 a.m.


The change is not meant to be permanent. But without enough nighttime customers, longer hours of operation will weigh on business in terms of labor and utility costs.


A sushi restaurant near Ueno Station has decided not to return to its normal 11 p.m. closing time due to the uncertainty that customer traffic will return. The location shortened operating hours to 9 p.m. as instructed by Tokyo, but only added 30 minutes once the request had been lifted.


“It will be hard to stay in business if the food we prepared goes to waste,” said the store owner.


Nikkei’s study looked at 100 restaurants each in the busy commercial districts near the Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinbashi, Ikebukuro and Ueno stations. Ikebukuro had the highest number of restaurants maintaining shorter hours, at 25, while the other areas had 18 to 22 locations. The hours of service on the restaurants’ web pages were used for confirmation and reference.


For roughly 11 months, Tokyo has requested eateries to shorten operating hours. The limit was set at 8 p.m. through the end of September, then extended to 9 p.m. until the curb was lifted entirely last week.


Furthermore, 103,296 out of roughly 120,000 locations in Tokyo had been authorized to serve alcohol again as of Oct. 22 after demonstrating rigorous disease-prevention protocols.


Because the measure was not binding, several locations have chose to stay open past the recommended closing time. But the substantial number of restaurants that opted to keep shorter hours points to a slow recovery of customer traffic and those that have decided to return to normal operating hours have expressed concern.


“As the coronavirus pandemic became protracted, the customers’ routines have changed, and the return of customer traffic have been weaker than I anticipated,” said the owner of a traditional Japanese restaurant near Shinbashi Station. That location restored its normal midnight closing time, but patronage from the 10 p.m. hour has declined compared to the pre-COVID period, said the owner.


In roughly 3,000 restaurants in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, the number of reservations during the week ended Sunday nearly doubled from the week ended Oct. 10, according to data provided by Toreta, a Tokyo startup offering a reservation management platform.


But while bookings doubled between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., reservations between 9 p.m. and midnight only rose by 50%. Saizeriya, a major chain that serves Italian cuisine, has decided not to restore late-night operating hours after October.


“Even if people go after for drinks, they refrain from going to afterparties,” said Hiroaki Muraoka, president of the restaurant management support firm Ray Consulting. “I believe restaurants will increasingly reconsider operating hours as late-night customer traffic remains lackluster.”

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