Japanese restaurants feeling the strain

Friday, April 8, 2011
Issue 1279, Page 14 – 15
Word count: 1608
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

Macau’s approximately 63 Japanese restaurants and eateries are possibly feeling the strain right now (and could be for a while longer), thanks to concern over Japan’s radiation crisis, but actions are being put in place in the hope to minimise impact on business and avoid any possibility of closures.

Hong Kong was the first Asian city to impose a ban on certain Japanese food imports on March 24, and the Macau Government quickly followed suit even though no radiation contamination was found in any produce from the quake stricken country.

Food products from Chiba, Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki and Tochigi Prefectures, areas most affected by the crippled nuclear power plant in northeast Japan, haven’t been imported to Macau since.

According to the external trade database of the Statistics and Census Service, the total quantity of fresh food imports from Japan was 738,800 kilograms during 2010, and seafood accounted for 68 percent (504,800 kilograms).

A spokesman of the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM), the department responsible for fresh food imports, told the Macau Daily Times that a majority of the products came from Hokkaido or Kyushu Island and only a very small volume came from the five affected prefectures.

Nevertheless, Chan Vai Tong, the store manager of Man Japanese Food, in NAPE, told the MDTimes that local suppliers have already halted fresh raw seafood imports from all parts of Japan.

“I think they don’t want to take the risk and consequently lose money in case the radiation crisis gets worse,” Chan says.

Japanese imports used to account for 70 percent of the food sold in the restaurant, but nowadays all kinds of fresh fish, geoduck, sea urchins and red ark shell clams which are usually eaten raw and served only with a dipping sauce (commonly known as sashimi) come from either Canada or Norway.

“We still have some Wagyu beef in stock which came before the earthquake in Japan, but after it finishes we may have to change to import it from New Zealand or the US,” Chan explained.

A change in import source results in higher operating costs, in spite of the fact that some fresh Japanese seafood was more expensive than in Northern American or European countries.

“The import costs have increased no matter if it is processed or fresh produce. I don’t think it’s because of the higher demand worldwide but that the suppliers are taking advantage of this opportunity to raise the prices,” the store manager pointed out.

No more big spenders

Not only is Man paying more for ingredients essential to a Japanese restaurant, it also receives fewer customers amid radiation fears, a drop of 30 to 40 percent, Chan says.

“The night business is mostly affected because it’s the time when customers mainly come to eat sashimi, while during day time people prefer quick lunch and will order our lunch menus,” he adds.

Some days during the week the restaurant would be packed with customers including several sashimi big spenders, but that’s now ‘history’.

“Since the selection of sashimi is narrower now and the seafood from Japan is actually of higher quality and thus could be sold at a higher price, the total customer order by table has decreased at least by half,” Chan bemoans.

“Some of our customers who would spend a couple of thousand or even over ten thousand patacas on raw seafood, sake [Japanese rice wine] and other food have now gone.”

Customers who do continue to patronise at Man are continuously questioning the foods source which Chan says never happened previously.

Although customer’s worries are allayed after much reassurance, the store manager says the majority lean towards cooked food and fresh salmon from Canada or Norway.

“So we now promote teppanyaki, grilled, boiled or other kinds of cooked dishes using chicken, beef, pork and lamb, and try to create new recipes to cope with the changes,” he added.

Man’s employer owns another NAPE Japanese restaurant, Yen.Fuki and Chan says business there has also been affected.

Interestingly though, in the first week straight after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan on March 11, both restaurants had an increase in customers of up to 30 to 40 percent.

“They all said that they wanted to come enjoy the sashimi when it was still clear of radiation. They expected that new stocks might be contaminated,” Chan says.

Chan said his employer prepared staff, expecting just this kind of reaction from the public, and believes it could continue for six months to a year.

Man and Yen.Fuki are trying to reduce costs and import less fresh produce, but Chan insists no staff will be lost. “We didn’t have enough man power before the nuclear crisis,” he admits.

“Our boss has asked us to remain strong and says he’s not concerned if he can’t make any profit, as long as there’s no major loss,” he adds.

Wynn Macau’s Okada was among the first few local Japanese restaurants to discontinue the use of menu ingredients from all parts of Japan due to concern of radiation leaks, even prior to the Government’s import ban.

“Wynn Macau is committed to the health and safety of our guests. We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” the gaming operator told the MDTimes in a statement, without giving further details.

Yet, vice chairman of Wynn Macau, Allan Zeman, said to Bloomberg in an interview last month that ‘it is the prudent thing to do and we hope it’s only temporary’.

“Until the situation in Japan clarifies, it’s better to import from other areas,” Zeman added.

The Macau Restaurant Merchants Association and the Association of Macau Small and Medium Enterprises of Catering did not provide comment on the current business environment of the local Japanese dining industry before the closing of today’s edition.

Confidence in testing

Local Chinese people may be wary of Japanese imports especially seafood, vegetables, fruits and dairy products, but the approximately 300 Japanese people who are living and working in Macau know the Japanese Government well and have confidence in its food safety tests and standards.

Kunio Muraishi left home in Tokyo in 1968 and moved to Hong Kong and then to Macau at the age of 26 in 1971, where he worked in a travel agency, which he eventually bought from the previous owner 20 years ago.

“In the beginning I only wanted to come here to learn Mandarin and then go back to Japan to run a business,” Muraishi told the MDTimes. “But I met my Macanese wife in Macau and we got married in 1973. This Sunday will be our 38th wedding anniversary.”

Being able to speak, write and read Chinese, Muraishi, at 66 years old, is also the president of the Japanese Club in Macau.

“There are not many authentic Japanese restaurants in Macau and most of them are owned by local Chinese people. I also don’t understand why, Korean restaurants here are usually owned by Korean people,” he observed.

According to Muraishi, the first restaurant that offered authentic Japanese cuisine in the territory was Furusato (now New Furusato) at Casino Lisboa.

“But at the time Chinese people weren’t really keen on raw seafood and they usually ate shabu-shabu and other kinds of cooked food,” he recalls.

Chan Vai Tong of Man Japanese Food describes Japanese food as a mainstream cuisine in Macau thanks to its cooking methods with little oil use and high kitchen hygiene standards.

It’s a view shared by Muraishi. “Japanese cuisine is healthy, doesn’t use much oil or flavour enhancer, which should contribute to long life expectancy.”

A few decades have passed and the number of Japanese restaurants and eateries (excluding take away’s) has now risen to around 63 in the city.

Official information provided to the MDTimes show that 13 restaurants were licensed by the Macau Government Tourist Office while the other 50 eateries were licensed by IACM.

Nevertheless, Muraishi agrees with the Government’s provisional import ban on all food products from the five prefectures affected by radiation concerns, even though he feels that people in Macau are not too fearful of radiation contamination.

“Japanese people are still eating the local food and if it’s not okay, they should all have died already. I’m confident that only food that has passed the safety test can be sold and exported,” he stressed.

Labour shortage killing industry

The current radiation scare aside, Japanese cuisine is undeniably popular in Macau. Sashimi, sushi, tempura and sake, says Chan Vai Tong, are some of the most popular items in the restaurant.

His owner apparently had three restaurants in Macau but was forced to close one due to a lack of manpower.

Man Japanese Food, which was opened about seven years ago, is ‘performing satisfactorily’ and has established a broad base of loyal customers including families, couples and corporate clientele, as well as those from the local Korean and Japanese communities.

Even with business progressing, Chan says it’s difficult to attract young people to apprentice in the business and become a master, which can take up to four years.

“A lot of our manpower has gone to work in the gaming industry which offers better salaries and a more comfortable job,” he says.

“The Government wouldn’t give us imported labour but even if it did, it’s a whole other issue to renew work permits,” he adds.

Man currently has six employees including two master chefs, who are in their early thirties and already have over ten years of experience in the profession.

“They could have gone to work in casinos but they said they didn’t want to,” Chan says. “If they quit it would be very hard for us to find replacements.”

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