Overcoming any adverse circumstance by evolving. The motivating force? “I don’t want to be defeated.”

China Bistro EVOLVE
Yoshifumi Tsunemura

China Bistro EVOLVE table-set

I can’t go back anymore… Opening with just 250,000 yen in my account.

When running a business, there are many things to do besides cooking…
But finally you opened your own restaurant in 2000.

Mr. Tsunemura:
Yes. At first it was a Chinese restaurant with mostly generic entrees.
The name was China Bistro Tsunemura. Many Chinese restaurants have names like, “Sichuan Cuisine something-or-other” or “House of something-something” and I didn’t think that was a good match for me. Then I spoke to a chef of western cuisine and he said that the word “bistro” refers to a place where people can eat good food, drink alcohol at an affordable price, and enjoy meals with everyone else; so I thought that was perfect. With that in mind we started the first restaurant in Rokkomichi, Kobe.

Did the opening go smooth?

Mr. Tsunemura:
It was like walking a tightrope. Even though I wasn’t sure if I could obtain a loan, I had to pay the deposit to real estate company or it would not be returned. I didn’t have a mortgage or guarantor. I tried to look for places where I could borrow without those things, making business plans and taking interviews, and I finally got approved, begging the contractor to do it within budget. When the restaurant opened, I had no cash on hand.

It’s usual for newly opened restaurants to prepare enough money to pay rent and living expenses for six months, to survive in the red, but I sold everything I could, including my car, and I only had 250,000 yen. I couldn’t go back; I just had to do it!

Honestly I thought there would be lines after two or three months, since I was confident in my skills.
But in reality it was not like that at all. It took several months. Rokko was an area that had just started to be redeveloped, so back then there were only a few buildings.
It was dark outside with no street lights, so people didn’t walk around, thinking it was dangerous.
It was only us with our lights on in the middle of nowhere.

The number of customers didn’t increase, and we often saw zero customers for dinner.
For a long time, there were many days where sales were less than 20,000 yen.
It was a usual occurrence that I received a call from the electric or gas company saying, “Payment was not deposited.” When we started getting one or two guests, they would say, “I thought it was a cafe” or “You don’t have a set menu?”
So in the beginning my wife handed out flyers at the ticket gate of Rokkomichi Station and put them in mailboxes. It was like that every day.

What was the turning point?

We were starting to have regular customers, and were introduced in local community magazines, cable TV, and even a famous gourmet magazine.
The big turning point was when after four or five years after opening, a food blogger, a major influencer, gave us a great review on a gourmet site

Since then we continued to have reservations. We quit lunch and shifted into dinner only, but
it was fully booked all the time. We only took reservations for a month at a time, but customers complained to us, “I can’t get a reservation no matter when I call!”

It takes a long time for culinary skills to be acknowledged.

Mr. Tsunemura:
Yes, it took a long time. Of course restaurants that became famous through that kind of media often appear and disappear quickly, but the important things are the “power to attract” when attention is on you. When I was in Rokkomichi I was very grateful when a regular customer said, “The food here has power. That was fun.”

And what I felt then was that serving in restaurants is like being on a stage.
Customers pay to see a performance, the cooking, and enjoy eating.
Preparation is a form of practice, and if you don’t practice enough, the actual performance is awful.
I think it’s an interesting world in that sense.

China Bistro EVOLVE table-set

Moving to a six-seater counter restaurant after experiencing a large establishment.

What was the consequence of moving to Sannomiya?

Mr. Tsunemura:
As we continued having full reservations at the restaurant in Rokkomichi, I received an offer from a hotel in Kitashinchi, Osaka. Back then I turned them down thinking it was too early, but after that, I started to think about the future. I was not sure if I could stay healthy, and didn’t know what would happen if I suddenly became half paralyzed. If something happened, we would have to close the restaurant.
What should I do about our income? I thought it was important to develop the restaurant to a certain size so that the restaurant could still go on even I wasn’t around.

So I decided to move to a larger place and renovate it into a big restaurant to welcome more customers. I went to see locations in Osaka and Kobe and I was able to find a suitable place. It wasn’t a busy street but was somewhere where customers would be able to find us, and so I ran it for six years or so.

But in a big restaurant, management and staff training are necessary, so I had more stress on other things besides cooking. And I started to think about how restaurants with one chef who ran the whole thing behind an open kitchen were becoming the norm.
With the labor shortages, I didn’t think the era of big restaurants could survive.
And so I thought of a restaurant that I could run even as I got old.

So you wanted to open a restaurant where you could concentrate on cooking and be satisfied with your work. So you moved to this current restaurant?

Mr. Tsunemura:
Yes. I moved to the current location in 2016. I had been offered it by the owner, who had said that he wanted the building to have the status of a Michelin star restaurant. But since the area was165 square meters, I had said no. But after talking to the owner in person he said,
“Then how about half?” Since we were then on the same wavelength, I decided to accept the offer.

After moving, I decided to stop serving a la carte items, and only serve courses in order to continue working at the restaurant for a long time. It was a matter of ingredients and cooking time, but also in order to keep customers from getting too “safe” or one-sided in their orders.
Of course it is nice when customers come regularly for certain dishes, but the best are comments like,”I ate the same thing at a different restaurant, but it is the best here.”
But honestly, I did want them to eat other menus.

How was the reaction of your regular customers?

Mr. Tsunemura:
They are happy. For those who had always ordered the same thing, they had dishes for their first time and said, “It was a good choice to eat the course!” Chinese cuisine, compared to French and others, has a strong image of single-plate dishes, so I wasn’t sure if my style would be accepted or not; it took courage. But in the end I made the right call.

What do you pay attention as you think about your menu?

Mr. Tsunemura:
I pay attention in order to make a course that has more value than the price of 8,000 yen. Ia m thinking about the balance of food, the order, and that it might be interesting serving like this or that…
I get feedback from my wife, like, “This is off balance here” or “If I were the customer, I would want this plate after this.”

So you have more time to focus on the culinary aspects.

Mr. Tsunemura:
Yes. I had been told by one customer who was a manager, “Using people gives you pain. There’s no need to go big.” And it was true. But my experience of having a hard time in the previous restaurant gave me some lessons that help me now. Now I want to build the foundation in three years in order to continue this for the next ten or twenty. After all, when I turn 60 years old, I can’t do the job of a younger chef. It gets difficult to have customers like the ones we have now at the current prices.
I want to continue trying new things, like making special courses with premium ingredients, or limiting the number of customers.

China Bistro EVOLVE interior

China Bistro EVOLVE

La Dorurei Kobe Sannomiya Bldg. 7th floor 1-25-6 Nakayamate-dori, Chuo-ku Kobe
18:00-22:30 (last order at 21:00)
Sundays, and two other days each month