Interview
2020.06.25

Holding “Family Days” at an Established Nihonbashi Sushi Restaurant:
Special Saturdays for Fun with Kids and Edo-Style Sushi.

Holding “Family Days” at an Established Nihonbashi Sushi Restaurant:
Special Saturdays for Fun with Kids and Edo-Style Sushi.

An increasing number of bars and restaurants are reopening after their extended, mandatory closure to address the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even in the gourmet city of Nihonbashi, each business owner is working on ingenious measures to address the coronavirus era and stay in business. However, it is undeniable that the city has not regained its past energy. Under these circumstances, longstanding sushi restaurant and procurer for the Imperial Palace Shigenozushi has begun new efforts “to connect with new customers, precisely because of the era.” While Edo-style sushi tends to have a high-class image, the establishment plans to serve families in a casual environment. We spoke with operator Mr. Ichiro Sakuma about his numerous, exciting ideas on this front.

A perfect opportunity to take on the challenge of building relationships with new customers.

-First, please introduce yourself.

My name is Sakuma, and I’m the third chef-owner-operator of “Shigenozushi,” which was founded in 1949. Our roots go back to a fish sales business back when there was a fish market in Nihonbashi. We’ve been providing fish to the Imperial Palace for offerings in rituals since then, and still make deliveries before opening each day, even now. Thanks to that support, we’ve always operated as “procurers for the Imperial Palace.”
https://www.bridgine.com/2019/02/08/shigenozushi/
(See here for our previous article with details on Shigenozushi)

-Could you tell us a bit about your current project?

It’s basically a “family day” where we open the business on Saturday – a day we’re normally closed – and welcome customers with children to try our sushi. People worry that the other patrons will be put out if they bring children, and we planned this out for them to enjoy a sushi dinner without those concerns. It’s a first effort. It’s the first time we’ve been open for general customers on Saturday in 30 years.

寿司
メニュー

A menu for the current event. It offers a very-affordable combined order for two adults and one child at just ¥10,000 (Image provided by: Shigenozushi)

-What sort of background factors moved you to hold a family-oriented event?

Shigenozushi typically hosts a lot of banquets and parties for businesspeople, and has a strong image as an adult venue, so we don’t see that many families. But as you’d expect, I’ve always wanted children and the younger generation to know about us as a restaurant. I see a lot of bicycles with children’s seats parked around the city, and I’ve wondered about how to get them to come to our restaurant, and about how it might be hard for them to relax in our mature atmosphere.

Then there was also the impact from the coronavirus. When I realized that the businesspeople wouldn’t come back all at once, I wanted to use this as an opportunity take on the challenge of building relationships with new customers.

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Mr. Ichiro Sakuma, owner-operator and chef of Shigenozushi

-So you viewed the situation as an opportunity. How did you come up with the idea for the event?

First, I consulted with the city building team members I know and get along with, to see. I said “I want to connect with new customers; will you lend me your brain, since I don’t know what to do?” And all the restaurant staff came together and threw out ideas, which resulted in us talking about a “family day” for families that live in the residential areas of east Nihonbashi. Those are on the rise currently. And the idea was a family-only event on Saturdays, one of our days off. Because we know people can enjoy an experience without worrying when the others there are all in the same situation are there with them.

-I see, it’s a day just for families. Does that make it less of a worry to have children around?

Yes. I’m hoping to give the parents a little moment of happiness amid the childcare, while also letting the children have fun. People are struggling to eat out during the corona pandemic, working from home and doing housework more, and it’s stressful for everyone, you know? I hope to bring a smile to the faces of parents in that situation.

-I’m sure that will bring tears to the eyes of a lot of mothers out there (laughter). It sounds like it will be a special experience for the children, too.

Exactly. One part of our focus on families is that we want children to learn about Edo-style sushi. Conveyor-belt “kaiten” sushi is fun and has its place, but we want the children to experience sitting at a counter and ordering whatever they like. We want them to learn how to eat various kinds of sushi and their use according to the TPO, and I want to create an opportunity for them to think “that place I went to years ago was good. We should go to that restaurant for this special occasion!” That’s for someday when they’re grown up, and have something to celebrate. It’s probably a bit excessive to call it “food education,” but I do want to make this into an effort to hand down the culture of Edo-style sushi to the next generation.

“We accept requests.” An event created hand-in-hand with customers.

-How did you decide on the menu for this event?

We heard about requests for the event in advance by partnering with “PIAZZA,” the local social media network, and used it as a reference to decide. That said, my initial response what “what’s PIAZZA?!” (Laughter) As my colleagues and I were throwing out ideas, we learned about it as an online community where a lot of Nihonbashi families participated, and wanted to join in. So we made a PIAZZA account and started sharing information.

Since this is a new challenge for us, I wanted to create it hand-in-hand with our customers. My stance as gathered customer opinions on the menu was that we’d try anything.

PIAZZA修正

This event drew a lot of responses on local social media network “PIAZZA” (Cross-posted from PIAZZA)

-What sort of requests did you get from PIAZZA?

As you might expect, people with children have fundamentally different needs than other customers. There were requests for diaper-changing spaces, efforts to make things simple to eat, and to keep the children from getting bored. There were a lot that made me feel like I was getting what they were after. I feel like it was a positive shake-up for my thinking about “this is how our restaurant is.” That tends to get a bit fixed in your mind when you run a place for a long time.

We also got a lot of responses that people were happy just to have an established restaurant offer an opportunity like this.Having them tell me that made me even happier than they were. I’m going to go all-out for this (laughter).

-Did you add any new ingredients by request, for this?

Salmon. Normally, Edo-style sushi doesn’t include salmon. But children love it, and we got a lot of requests, so we’ll be serving it for one day only, for this event.

-Salmon as Edo-style sushi… That actually sounds quite inventive.

It took a lot of courage (laughter). But Edo-style sushi wasn’t originally as formalized as multiple-course dinners are; customers could order however much they wanted of whatever they liked. So I wanted to offer dishes children might choose, in order to let them learn about that part of the Edo style at the same time.

-I’ve heard you’ll also have a new, younger chef making a debut at this event. Is that true?

It is. In the sense that we’re creating this event hand-in-hand with our customers, I wanted to make one counter-request to them to let us train a young team member, while we take all of their requests. We plan to have new chefs making sushi for customers for the first time during the event. They’re practicing under strict supervision every day, and really giving their all at training. They’ll be nervous until the event starts (laughter), and I hope everyone will be cheering them on.

お弟子さん

New chef Mr. Maruyama (center, nicknamed Maru-chan) (Image provided by: Shigenozushi)

-It does sound fun to feel like you’re developing the restaurant as well, as a customer.

I want this to be a sort of give-and-take event, where our customers are a bit understanding. The restaurants of Nihonbashi have always had strong connections to each other, and also with customers, so we have a strong sense of mutual aid. In that sense, you might say it’s a very Nihonbashi-style event.

This is precisely the time to take a chance on new things.

-I’d imagine you’re facing difficult choices about time closed and business format considerations with the coronavirus pandemic. But you seem to have a very positive stand toward it all, Mr. Sakuma. How is that?

The current situation has been a good opportunity for us to reexamine the way we envision our restaurant. We had never stayed closed for a full month, before. Over that time, I thought a lot about what I could do for the restaurant and our customers.

We’ve reopened now, but in a sense coming to a restaurant now takes a certain level of resolve. I feel like people are really working up their courage and deciding that “this particular restaurant will be alright.” I sincerely appreciate that, and have renewed my drive to show my gratitude in each and every interaction, to properly rise to everyone’s expectations.

しげのずし内観

The interior of Shigeno-zushi (Image provided by: Shigeno-zushi)

-How do you expect restaurants and bars to change in the future?

I think the value of a restaurant existing will change now that we’re in the mid-coronavirus stages. I feel like we need to be inventive and come up with ways to give people a full sense of the special experience they get from coming to a restaurant. The type you don’t get to savor with a takeout bento box. So right now, I want to find all sorts of possibilities by using this event as a sort of trial. I’d like to take changes to how the world runs as chances to try new things.

-Have you thought about future “family days” at all?

We’ve also received ideas for experiences and workshops that let customers make their own sushi. I’m aiming to make this into a long-lived event that gradually incorporates that sort of content as it goes on over time, rather than holding it just this time.

-I feel like this could have an influence on other restaurants, too. Do you agree?

I’d be happy if it did. I think it would be nice if events like this spread to other restaurants in Nihonbashi, then variation in events grew over time, having sushi one week, then eel, then tempura. It would be a lot of fun if Saturdays took root as “Nihonbashi family days.” That would also strengthen our lateral connections, and I’d love to see the entire city evolve into one big restaurant called “Nihonbashi.” But I do think it would take time to spread that far, so for now I’m just going to do everything I can to prepare and make sure everyone enjoys the current event!

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-Finally, do you have any messages for our readers this time?

Thanks to everyone out there, we’ve managed to fill up on reservations this time, and people are paying attention for the next time we’ll hold an event. So I would be delighted if everyone also made it to our restaurant during regular days. We’re keeping distance between seats, we have sanitizer stations set up, and we’re wearing masks… We’re taking all precautions against spreading the disease, so please don’t worry if you make your way down.

Sushi restaurants are also a place for communication. I want this event to be a day that brings sushi restaurants much closer to people’s everyday lives through the restaurant ambience and conversations with the chefs, but that’s also how I view our standard business. Please feel free to just step through our noren curtains at the entrance and speak to us. Even if all you want to ask is “why are you so gloomy, Mr. Sakuma?” I’ll respond to anything (laughter). I’d also absolutely love it if this all led to conversations and connections between customers. I’ll be looking forward to meeting everyone!

Interview and text: Minako Ushida (Konel) Photography: Daisuke Okamura

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