Pivoting during a Pandemic

You could have once argued that London’s Chinatown was one of the best spots to open a restaurant (prior to Covid of course), placed strategically just minutes away from the city’s theatre district, vendors could attract hungry musical goers and tourists right after they emerged from the latest West-End show. 

“We used to get 15,000 people walking the street each night”, says Richard Hill, owner of traditional Japanese restaurant Tokyo Diner, an eatery which has served the busy Asian inspired street for more than 20 years. 

However, since lockdown laws were first imposed back in March his business has been forced to close indefinitely. Unlike other high streets, the area has a small residential population so it heavily relies on tourists as opposed to locals to generate the majority of its income. 

Now in order to survive, Hill has pivoted his business offering launching Fakey Cakey, an e-commerce savory cake store inspired by the cuisine his team used to serve. Catering Today spoke to him to find out more.

When did you first feel the effects of covid-19? 

Tokyo Diner began to feel the impact of Covid as early as January, on the 15th March we shut our doors for the very first time since launching the restaurant in 1992, previously we had served customers every day of the year, even Christmas day. 

For us it was obvious it was not going to work, we closed because it was impossible to social distance, the building layout is identical to that of a traditional Japanese restaurant, making it very small, and keeping a two meter distance would have been very difficult. 

Why Fakey Cakey?

The whole purpose of the launch was to re-tool as we couldn’t open to the public as a restaurant, we had been making the cakes to celebrate our own birthdays and staff parties, although we never had time to develop it for the public, my chef even surprised me with one for my 60th birthday, it was delicious and totally unique.

We had a fully equipped kitchen and trained staffed ready to go, so making the products was not going to be an issue. At the moment though it’s too soon to tell if this new venture will be enough to keep us going for the rest of covid, I am doing everything I can to ensure its success, this is the hardest I have worked in the 20 years since we have opened. 

Do you have plans to reopen Tokyo Diner? 

We are not expecting to open our doors any time soon, even if the government changes regulations. I don’t think we will open until we regain customer confidence. 

In my opinion, customers vote with their feet, and to the customer, it’s not only value for money that is important but also how safe they feel, if you don’t feel safe then you are not really enjoying your meal. 

How are your staff?

12 out of our 30 employees have returned to Japan, and I think it will be difficult to rebuild a structured team again, as a business owner your greatest asset is people working together, and I think creating a happy well functioning team once more will be hard, from past experiences it often takes two to three years to do. 

It’s hard to emotionally invest again in getting to know a new person, it’s a very stressful process.  

Any predictions on how covid will change UK hospitality? 

The hospitality industry requires special attention by the UK government in order to fully repair, however I am looking forward to the middle to long term future. I think there will be a tremendous renaissance after Covid, and it will change what the restaurant business looks like. 

Think about it, lots of high street chains have gone out of business and I believe that those vacant properties will become independent restaurant start ups. I do believe this was bound to happen anyway, but perhaps the pandemic was the final push.

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