The Coronavirus Diaries: Richard Hills, owner of Tokyo Diner

At Tokyo Diner, being located in the heart of London’s Chinatown, we (alongside most other restaurants in the area) started to feel the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry as early as January when people began avoiding the area. Regardless of what the Government was announcing, customers were voting with their feet: within the space of a few weeks our customer numbers dropped far below our break-even point.

On 15 March, with heavy hearts, we took the decision to shut Tokyo Diner’s doors for the very first time since I launched the restaurant in 1992 – previously, we had been proud to open the restaurant every day of the year (even Christmas) and to keep serving our cherished customers, friends and family. On 20 March, the Government announced that all restaurants would close. It was a scary time for the whole Chinatown community, as nobody knew what would happen next. At Tokyo Diner we had members of the team who had been unbelievably loyal for nearly 30 years, and it was heart breaking not being able to offer them any certainty about the future.

Just as with the announcement of the closure of restaurants, the Government told us almost overnight that we could re-open on 4 July 2020. However, as anyone who has visited Tokyo Diner will know, we have made the most of our tiny premises by recreating the authentic cheek-by-jowl seating that is typical in densely populated Japanese cities. Looking at what we needed to do to maintain social distancing, it was pretty obvious to us that it couldn’t be done safely and profitably – maybe safely, maybe profitably, but definitely not both.

As we were reminiscing on better times, I fondly remembered Gayan-san’s mouth-watering savoury layer cake that he had kindly made for my 60th birthday, and inspiration struck! (60 is an important milestone in Japanese culture as it represents the beginning of a new cycle of life. The team ‘invited’ me to wear a traditional scarlet “Chanchanko” – a form of oversized baby’s swaddling that’s worn to reinforce the theme of re-birth.) When I saw the ‘cake’ that Gayan-san had made for me, I simply assumed that it was an ordinary, overly sweet, sugar-filled, traditional birthday cake. It was only when I got really close that I realised that Gayan-san, knowing my disdain for empty calories, had created a healthy alternative for me. That was the first ever Fakey Cakey; we just didn’t know it at the time.

So, since June 2020, I have been working with a few members of the team to develop the Fakey Cakey concept – trying and testing scores of different styles, flavour combinations, sizes and ingredients; developing safe methods of production, refrigeration and delivery; and costing all the ingredients, materials and labour required to produce, decorate and package each Fakey Cakey. What turned out to be the trickiest was working on aspects of the project like branding, social media, websites, PR and marketing – all sorts of things that we hadn’t had to worry about with Tokyo Diner as it was such an established business that relied on faithful returning customers and world of mouth.

In September, we were finally ready to launch with fourteen different flavours and two sizes (serving either 8-10 or 12-15 people). We know that there is fantastic diversity in London, so we are offering an all-cooked range (meat, fish & seafood); a sashimi range; and a vegetarian & vegan range. Each Fakey Cakey is hand-finished with beautiful decorations to make it look as good as it tastes.

Then, on 14 September, the Government made another rapid announcement that no more than six people could gather for most social get-togethers. Another blow. But we quickly reacted and adapted again by adding a new “Rule-of-Six” size to all our products that is perfect for 6 hungry people to enjoy together.

To make sure we’re keeping everything COVID-19 safe for both our team and our customers, all orders are cashless, and taken online. People can collect from us if they wish, and we have opened a collection hatch on the side of our premises so that no one actually enters the building. We are also working with our delivery partner, Green Courier, who are currently able to deliver Fakey Cakey to all London postal districts.

I am incredibly proud of what we have created – Fakey Cakey is in my opinion a fantastic and innovative creation. It is the perfect solution for those who want all the wow-factor of a celebration cake but prefer healthy ingredients and savoury flavours. It also makes an innovative impression for corporate events, as well as being a talking point for people who are having friends around for dinner.

Who knows what the future holds?! I know that I definitely want to re-open Tokyo Diner as a restaurant again. In the meantime, I am really excited that Tokyo Diner is developing Fakey Cakey. Our skilled team have been working together for nearly 30 years and I hope that Fakey Cakey will flourish and save their jobs so that, when the pandemic is all over, we can continue to run the business I love.

By Richard Hills, owner of Tokyo Diner

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