There’s nothing quite like them, those “oases of the night” known in Japanese as “famiresu.” Clean, well-lit and open 24/7, the family restaurant is the perfect host, the perfect refuge from whatever it is that’s harassing you. Install yourself in a booth and it becomes your living room. Theoretically, you never have to leave. One famiresu devotee boasts of having spent 52 hours straight at one.
Can they be dying, these friendly sanctuaries? Weekly Playboy (May 5) fears they are. The evidence is not far to seek. Seven & i Holdings, citing declining profits, has announced plans to close possibly as many as 140 of its roughly 570 Japanese Denny’s outlets within three years. The other two major chains, Royal Host and Skylark, have said nothing so far, but to market analyst Shusaku Ueda, the writing is on the wall.
“The famiresu business has an annual turnover of 1.7 trillion yen,” he says. “If you look at the market as a whole, profits seem slightly up, but the big three have seen year-on-year declines for the past 10 years.”
“In 10-15 years, fewer than half of them will be left,” says a Weekly Playboy journalist. “Maybe no more than a third.”
What's happening to the “famiresu culture?”
Weekly Playboy’s investigation shows it being assailed on all sides. The magazine polled 100 famiresu employees nationwide to gauge the mood. It is deeply pessimistic.
“Number of customers? Down,” says a family restaurant manager in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. “First there were the meat mislabeling scandals; then, the poisoned Chinese gyoza. These had an enormous impact. Since then, we get customers asking us where our ingredients come from. They’re uneasy. Family restaurants used to be happy places; now, there’s this negative image. I’m uneasy myself. Will I have this job five, 10 years down the road?”
“For the past year and a half, the prices of our food ingredients have gone through the roof,” says a senior employee at a restaurant in Tochigi Prefecture. “Our personnel costs are also up. Meanwhile, we’ve had to lower our prices.” His grim conclusion: “We’re in trouble!”
The overarching truth seems to be that the famiresu, conceived in sunnier times, no longer suits the darkening national mood. For one thing, Weekly Playboy notes, the family itself is breaking up. “The average household today has three people or less -- not consistent with the image of a family of four or more piling into the car and heading off to enjoy a nice meal somewhere. Instead, you get people coming in alone and staying all night. The atmosphere is no longer family-friendly, and it brings sales down.”
Then there’s the fact that Japan, though by most standards a rich country, is gradually filling up with poor people. Family restaurants were not designed for the rich, but the working poor -- part-timers earning 900 yen an hour, for example -- are not likely to have much cash to spare even for relatively inexpensive restaurant fare.
“Too bad, too bad!” exclaims pro wrestling writer Tarzan Yamamoto when Weekly Playboy approaches him for a reaction. “I have a new girlfriend. Where do we go on dates? To the famiresu -- naturally. She doesn’t drink, you see, so the famiresu is a great place for us to enjoy our time together. Cafes are too small. The famiresu is spacious, and you can stay all night without anyone bothering you. We sit at our booth, sharing a cake, our knees touching under the table, we kiss... If the family restaurants go under, what’ll we do?”© Japan Today