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With Physical Distancing Required, Tokyo Restos Embrace I.T. to Welcome Customers



Photo: Mori Building Co Ltd's new Toranomon Yokocho


The Japanese hospitality industry was among the hardest hit by the new coronavirus pandemic, combined with business and public cooperation with government calls for self-restraint. 


Japanese bar and restaurant operators voluntarily curtailed business hours, thinned seating, and focused on takeout menus in their bid to avoid the 3Cs: confined spaces with poor ventilation, crowded settings, and close contact with others. At the same time, for many, new IT services and business alignments were started. 


However, it is hard to ignore the losses, now that government restrictions have begun to ease. The new age of coronavirus requires both economic activities and mitigation measures against the spread of infection to run side by side. 



The restaurant industry must unfold services in accordance with the new lifestyle, such as developing income pillars other than food and beverage services. These new strategies will be a key to survival for restaurants.



New Restaurant Alley, New System for the 3Cs


“Toranomon Yokocho” in Toranomon Hills Business Tower is the latest central Tokyo restaurant alley to open for business, welcoming its first customers on June 6. It is conveniently connected to the Toranomon Hills Station on the Hibiya Line.


The alley features 26 restaurants, including one with a Michelin star and a new branch of a 70-year-old establishment. In all, there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and pop-up eating establishments to provide delicious food and drink at more reasonable prices.



Symbolic of the times, the infrastructure in place addresses coronavirus concerns. There are cameras and screens at the entrance and exit to the restaurant walkway that are utilized to control visitors and limit the size of crowds. According to a press officer of Mori Building Co., Ltd., the developer of Toranomon Hills, the thermography cameras measure visitors’ body temperature for signs of fever to help manage the risk of infection.  


The cameras also confirm how many customers go in and out. Additionally, the screens show the current number of visitors inside Yokocho. When the crowd reaches a preset number, an alert is sent to the building’s disaster control center, which dispatches security staff to restrict visitors from entering the area until the crowd thins out.


Customers can add the free LINE app for “Toranomon Yokocho” to their smartphone, and make an appointment or register for a time to enter the restaurant alley. When it is their turn, the entry restriction is lifted, and the patron is sent a notification via the social media app. 


This system makes it easier for both customers and restaurant staff because there are no lines and crowds to control. Visitors are able to go enjoy the food and atmosphere while minimizing their risks of violating the 3Cs.




Coping with Limitations, Creating New Businesses


Many restaurants in Japan are undertaking additional measures to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. Among the most common coping measures are restaurants’ reduction of seating inside the establishment and installation of shields between customers.


The monitoring systems introduced by the Mori building also appear to have helped reduce the burden on restaurant operators.


Hikoaki Tan, owner-chef at Akasaka Rikyu, a Chinese restaurant at Toranomon Yokocho, told JAPAN Forward and The Sankei Shimbun: “It is very good to entrust crowd control to another partner. We, the restaurant side, cannot control it by ourselves.”



The restaurant industry was among the first to be economically impacted when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. 


As a consequence of the governmental entry restrictions on foreign visitors, inbound tourism has sharply decreased. Domestically, requests for voluntary restraint by both national and local governments have led business-related dining to drop off. 


This has led some establishments to experiment with new business ideas to provide a revenue stream other than through their main food and beverage businesses.


Makoto Ohnuki, president of a company which developed the “3D Phantom,” a digital machine that projects hologram images in the air, expects to repurpose the machine as a tool for digital advertisement.



Phantom is a device that shows hologram images in the air that are made by data sent via internet connection. The images are formed by LED lights embedded on rotating blades that revolve at high speed.


Subsidies through Japanese stimulus programs at the national and local government levels can be used to assist in the purchase of the digital signage, which it turns out is behind the intentions of nearly all businesses making inquiries about the Phantom. However, Mr. Ohnuki suggests, restaurant owners can use the Phantom not only in advertising their own business, but by renting it out to others as digital signage.


For example, a bar or restaurant with no images for a midday time slot can sell that time to an advertising agency for another company’s use, and gain a new revenue stream in return. One of the expected advertising sponsors is a major beverage company that supplies some of the establishments.




Private-Public Collaboration for Business


One restaurant owner decided to introduce the Phantom in order to project images reminding patrons coming to his bar to abide by infection control measures. 


Yasu Yoshikawa, the owner of a bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, is using it to project messages asking customers to sanitize their hands and fingers and wear a face mask. He says people love it: “Projected images in the air are an outstanding hit among our guests, and so the Phantom is a great way to appeal for infection control.”


Another promising IT system is one developed by Whiteboard, a company in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward which specializes in security systems equipped with A.I. (human intelligence). It automatically detects congestion inside a venue and can guide customers appropriately using voice and video, even if there is no receptionist. It is expected to help businesses by reassuring customers of the safety of entering the venue, without exposing employees of the establishment to increased risk and workload. 


Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) began to ease the rules in June for food and beverage establishments’ use of outdoor roadside spaces like sidewalks adjacent to their doors. The relaxed rules will expire at the end of November 2020. Until then, restaurants are exempted from paying full fees for occupation of the roadside spaces, so long as they voluntarily cooperate by cleaning up near their restaurants.



MLIT hopes to encourage development of new styles of restaurant management to expand business while avoiding the 3Cs, such as the use of outdoor terrace seating and expanding sales through takeout menus, and incorporation of I.T. Such collaboration between the food and beverage industry and other businesses are likely to become the norm in the near future in Japan.



Author: Mizuki Okada

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