Supporting restaurants with high-value service
How do you recruit service staff?
Fujimaki used to be in charge, but he is now responsible of the winery project we are developing as a group, so Nishijima is in charge now. I believe that service is at the core of the entertainment we call restaurants. Among that, Fujimaki is like a natural born service staff; I have never seen anyone like him. He never makes people uncomfortable no matter what happens. More than that, customers even demand Fujimaki`s service.
For example, I think it`s typical for any restaurant, but there are times that when a customer`s wine glass is empty, but we can`t tend to that due to taking reservations or doing something else. But in Fujimaki’s case, customers wait without complaining. When he finally arrives, they would say, “Fujimaki finally came,” and are happy.
He is like an idol. I have never seen someone like him.
Since he used to work as staff in nightclubs, it is no surprise that his service manner is perfect, but he also grabs customers hearts through conversation. In addition to his behavior and empathy, he is a genius when it comes to connecting with the customers. And all the while, he gives the customer the impression that he is doing it for them, without giving any discomfort. Truly the highest performance.
I can`t say whether it is something he was born with, but there are certain things you can`t explain with mere technique. It`s the essence of service.
I expect Nishijima to pass it on, as he has seen Fujimaki`s service and worked closely with him.
I want to let everyone have dreams.
It seems that restaurant management is going quite well. On the other hand, have you experienced any failure to this point?
Mr. Taira :
I tried to run a small club with Fujimaki and his buddies when he was a nightclub staff, but it did`t go well at all and we closed it within a year. While there are similarities between the restaurant business and nightlife industry, they are clearly different.
I also tried my hand at Yakiniku (Japanese style barbeque). First of all, I personally do not like Yakiniku and left others in charge, but it was also a failure. But I quit quickly when projects do not go well, so it never becomes fatal.
In both the restaurant and in management, it is important to make an environment in which you can operate easily. What I mean is that for example, if you want to open a restaurant but cannot find staff, go for 10 seats instead of 20. You have to think of a way that customers will pay for what you want. Nothing goes well when the food that you want to cook, prices, and your ideal private life go off balance. You have to think backward from your goal realistically, focusing on what you need to do to make it possible.
Do you intervene much in the management side of Gruppo di SALONE`s restaurants?
Mr. Taira :
I am the representative director, but it is Fujimaki, Higuchi, and I together who develop plans, trying to end up with a restaurant concept in which each individual`s ideas make up 30% of the whole. I want to do a shop near the ocean or place a service table right in the middle of the shop; we get hints for building the restaurant from chefs and staff who are actually working now.
The challenge is seeing how much you can actualize those ideas and attract people.
I have seen many chefs since my days as an apprentice, but I think the greatness of a first-class chef is to function as the control tower for 20 to 30 cooks. Even if he or she isn`t paying close attention, they can predict mistakes and make adjustments in advance from the mood of the cooks or timing errors when salting. It was the same when I worked as a chef, but that experience is useful even after becoming the manager.
SALONE TOKYO : The newest shop
Please tell us about Gruppo di SALONE and your dreams.
Mr. Taira :
As for business management, I want to limit my direct involvement and take more of a guiding position when making decisions. However, there is one thing I always keep in my mind: time off. I want to develop the consciousness of chefs and those who work at restaurants and help improve their social status. To achieve this, I think we need to provide a good working environment, sufficient time to be with their families. We close all shops for a week in both the summer and winter, and even the newest restaurant, SALONE TOKYO, which is located in a large shopping mall, has the same schedule: closed on Sundays and the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month. I do not allow working after business hours and let everyone use their idle time and break time as they wish. I believe you will be able to perform your best at work only if you take adequate rest and enjoy life on days off. Also, in an effort to build a bridge between Japan and Italy, I accept and support chefs who have done apprenticeships overseas. People say it has become hard for younger generations to have dreams, but I want chefs to always be a subject of admiration. That’s why if you enter Gruppo di SALONE and work hard, you can acquire the skills necessary for making Italian cuisine, and eventually, grow into a chef capable of opening your own restaurant.
Starting a winery business in response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami
You started a winery business, didn’t you?
Mr. Taira :
That was also Fujimaki’s connection. It was when the earthquake occured in 2011. We went to the affected areas to to provide food for the victims about once a week. We drove from Tokyo, which meant about two days driving, 700, 800 km on no sleep before reaching Kesennuma city. I also drove sometimes, but given that it is dangerous to drive such long distances I would stop by my mother’s hometown in Yamagata prefecture for a night. My mother`s parents` place has a grape farm. Actually, it is hard to earn money from only grape farms. It is not always the case that grape farms have good relationships with wineries, so many do not wish to pass down the business to their children. As a result, there was a serious shortage of successors and many farms became desolate.
Fujimaki would also go on the soup-runs, so he stayed with us at the time. He had a long history with natural wines as he provided them at his restaurant, and had a clear passion for them. Therefore, he got very interested in the farm. As he learned more and more about the situations of grape farms in Yamagata, one day he said, “I want to be a winemaker.” I was very surprised, but he went as far as to say it was a turning point in his life. And he was serious! Farms have unique local rules and there are various difficulties involved, but he was so enthusiastic about becoming a winemaker that we managed to start a company “GRAPE REPUBLIC, INC” in 2015. While he was learning the skills of vinifying, I forged a partnership with a New Zealand natural wine company, “Don & Kindeli.” We collaborate and create wines together. From there Yamagata wines suddenly appeared in the world market. It is great. Aren`t you excited (laughs)? That’s why I want to create wine accepted all throughout the world! And what makes me really happy is that the old men and women who work at the farms we have contracts with have something to be proud of. They laugh and say, “We may be driving a Benz in a couple of years.” They have really beautiful smiles. It is such a great honor to share a dream with someone else.
(Interviewer: Osamu Saito Contents: Junko Kobayashi Photographs: Tomoyasu Osakabe)
At IL TEATRINO DA SALONE