How did Japanese restaurants and bars manage to keep their business afloat during and after lockdown? Smart take-away policy using smaller bottling formats and promoting rare gems are some of the strategies that saved many businesses, writes Mari Yasuda.

How did Japanese restaurants and bars manage to keep their business afloat during and after lockdown? Smart take-away policy using smaller bottling formats and promoting rare gems are some of the strategies that saved many businesses, writes Mari Yasuda.

The Japanese government lifted the state of emergency over Covid-19 on May 25 for Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures, sending a positive signal to the country’s dining and drinks industry affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Alcoholic beverage sales in restaurants/bars slowly started to recover

Photo by Thomas Marban on Unsplash

During the state of emergency, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government restricted the opening hours of restaurants/bars until 20:00 with the serving of alcoholic beverages up to 19:00. However, after the lifting of the state of emergency, restaurants/bars are allowed to remain open up to 22:00 along with the serving of alcoholic beverages to 22:00. Will the sales of alcoholic beverages in Tokyo recover to previous levels ? 

According to a report in Shuhan News, sales of alcoholic beverages to restaurants/bars in Tokyo showed a positive growth in the second week of May. The sales of most liquor shops to restaurants/bars in Tokyo decreased by around 90% in April 2020 compared with the same month in 2019; however, sales in the second week of May remained at 70-80% lower than those in the same period last year. Many restaurants which had suspended business after the declaration of the state of emergency on April 7 restarted their businesses till 20:00 after the consecutive holidays in the first week of May.

Furthermore, after the business hours were allowed to be extended to 22:00, many high-end restaurants which had suspended their businesses during the emergency, began to reopen. For example, Quintessence, a Michelin 3-star restaurant, reopened from May 28 and, L’Osier, also a Michelin 3-star restaurant, reopened from June 2. Restaurants in large shopping buildings such as Ginza Six also restarted their businesses. This would indicate that the alcoholic beverages market in restaurants/bars slowly started to recover.

However, it will be difficult to expect sales to recover immediately to reach pre- Covid-19 levels, due to smaller clientele as most are working from home together with restricted business hours. In addition, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government strongly advises night clubs and bars, where the sales of expensive alcohol beverages/wines are expected, to continue to remain closed.

Temporary alcoholic beverages sales license 

Today, I want to talk a little bit about one political measure targeting restaurants/bars that offered a lifeline during the pandemic. On April 9, the national tax agency authorized a “temporary alcoholic beverages sales license” to restaurants/bars. This decision was made only two days after the declaration of the state of  emergency. It is unusually speedy for an administrative measure in Japan.

The sales of alcoholic beverages of Japan are strictly controlled by a licensing system authorized by the national tax agency. Restaurants/bars can sell alcoholic beverages inside the premises, but not for take-away. This “temporary alcoholic beverages sales license” now allows the sale of take-away, too. The license is valid only within six months after authorization.

Customer relationships 

Some restaurants/bars utilize this tentative license well. Sake bar “be Rock”, located in Yokohama city, which is close to Tokyo, suspended the business after the declaration of the state of emergency. 

They, however, got this tentative license immediately and started the take-away sales of sake in smaller quantities of 180 ml from 20th of April. “The reason why we quickly shifted to a take-away of sake is that we wanted to maintain the  relationship with our customers and to help maintain the logistics for all related people in the supply chain rather than to get a cash-flow.” says Tanaka, the owner of  “be Rock”. 

Tanaka has always selected sake from producers who she knows directly because she wants to promote not only the taste of that sake but also the character and the background of the producer to the customers. Tanaka applied the same policy to the take-away sake. Each bottle has a hand-written label explaining about the taste of sake,  how to enjoy it, its origin and other details (please refer to the photo). This label can easily be peeled off from the bottle, so customers can keep the label if they liked the sake.

“I want the customers to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with that sake”, says Tanaka. Her passion seems to be welcomed by customers. A take-away of small formatted sake was well received by the customers. A customer, who had come to this bar regularly before the suspension of business, now came to the bar once a week to buy 6 bottles of take-away sake to enjoy one bottle per day. A new customer, who found about this take-away from Twitter came to buy sake and has now become a regular.

“It is a great pleasure to find that we could not only maintain our  relationship with the existing customers but could also create new relationships”, says Tanaka. At the moment the bar has re-opened to normal operation. 

A cut above 

Vionys, the pioneer of a Champagne bar located in Ginza, Tokyo, still remains closed in accordance with the advice of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. However, it found a niche in selling rare gems during the pandemic to keep its business afloat. 

Vionys started sales of Champagne from their stock from May 29. Makoto Abe, the chief sommelier of Vionys and the Best Sommelier of Japan in 2002, says “For this take-away sale, we intentionally avoided selecting the items which are currently sold in the market. On the contrary, we selected the Champagne which we had purchased before and stocked in our cellar, or which have a premium market value.” The list includes Krug Brut 1985, Cuvée René Lalou 1973 of GH Mumm or other precious old-vintage Champagne. According to Abe, bottles of premium old-vintage Champagne were sold out immediately after their sales started. 

This tentative alcohol sales license seems to be very useful especially for restaurants /bars that have a unique selling point in their offer as shown above. In this difficult situation, it is expected that many restaurants /bars utilize this license and contribute to the sales recovery of alcoholic beverages.

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