The Power of Meibutsu

In my previous post I mentioned the Japanese word meibutsu or “local specialty”. Today we’ll look at meibutsu in the context of the restaurant business.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to travel around Japan knows that each geographic area boasts its own meibutsu. Indeed one of the joys of travel in Japan is the chance to sample meibutsu from the various prefectures. So popular is this practice that many Japanese will even consume food they don’t particularly care for. It’s not about the food; they are hungry for authenticity.

When we first moved to Hawaii my wife—born and raised in Japan—insisted on trying Loco Moco at a famous Hilo establishment. Knowing her aversion to greasy food I was sure she’d take a few token bites then leave the rest for me. But in just minutes my little Asian flower devoured two eggs, a beef patty, a slice of spam, and two Portuguese sausages on a mountain of rice smothered in gravy. She answered my question before I had a chance to ask:

“I’ll never eat this again, it’s too greasy.”

The first thought that popped into my head was, Why did she have to eat all of it? The answer, of course, is for the bragging rights to say she had eaten Hawaii’s famous meibutsu.

My wife’s attitude is reflective of her culture: meibutsu has special appeal for Japanese travelers because (again) it’s authentic. Featuring a local delicacy in your restaurant is an excellent way to attract Japanese customers, and connect them with local culture.

How Important is Service?

If you ask the Japanese, even the tastiest dish in the world is spoiled by bad service. I once observed a Japanese diner in a Chicago-area restaurant scold a young American server who brought him a cup of hot green tea filled to the brim. The cup was “too hot to hold,” said the irate customer before instructing the waiter on the exact amount of tea that should have been in the teacup (leaving about one-third unfilled). When the waiter left, the diner commented to his tablemates that the restaurant’s management was to blame for such poor service because of “insufficient training”.

Another cross-cultural mishap occurred at a premium resort in Hawaii where an angry Japanese guest reportedly sent back a bowl of ramen with a request that the chef, “please decorate noodle presentation”.

In the first example, we have a waiter who has never been instructed on the finer points of serving green tea in cups without handles. In the second example, the restaurant staff was oblivious to the importance Japanese guests place on aesthetics and food presentation.

These are minor cross-cultural infractions easily remedied with a sincere apology and sufficient effort to rectify the problem. But imagine all the mistakes that go unnoticed?

Unfortunately, more often than not an inconvenienced Japanese customer will choose not to verbalize dissatisfaction, so servers don’t get the benefit of learning from mistakes. Short of direct customer feedback, the most effective way to expose the hidden cultural pitfalls is through education and training.

What Level of Service do Japanese Diners Expect?

The bare-minimum expectation is that your employees master the basics: make guests feel welcome when they walk in the door; seat them promptly; get drinks on the table and a menu in their hands; then back up quality food with efficient, attentive service.

The magnitude of the culture gap becomes more apparent when you examine the different nuances of the word “attentive” in Japan and America.

The reality is Japanese customer service attempts to deliver a level of attentiveness some Americans would consider excessive, in some cases even intrusive. The unspoken goal of Japanese servers is to anticipate all customers’ needs and desires. Japanese service attempts to remove all decisions from the customer, a practice not necessarily appreciated by individualistic, choice-loving Americans. (In Japan, no choice of soup or salad, how your steak is prepared, or what to put on your baked potato; the meal is all “anticipated” for you.)

Hence, the ideal server in Japan is a mind reader who shows up at the customer’s side precisely when needed, clears dishes promptly, fills glasses just before they’re empty, and replaces used napkins before anyone realizes clean ones are needed.

If the Japanese standard strikes you as unachievable, that’s because it is. The good news is that Japanese customers don’t expect you to be perfect. The bad news is that they expect you to try very hard to be perfect. In the eyes of the Japanese, a sincere show of effort alone adds value to your product. Demonstrating effort is a surefire way to win the heart of even the most finicky, demanding Japanese customer.

Guidelines for Success

Master the basics. Know that quality is a given and effort buys you a lot.

Beyond the basics train servers to anticipate and proactively fulfill customer needs—the Japanese call this kikubari. The added benefit of kikubari is that it neutralizes the language barrier since words are not required to provide attentive, proactive service.

A little Japanese goes a long way. No doubt Japanese guests want to hear “aloha” when they walk into your restaurant. But when mistakes are made, the same guests expect to hear an apology in their own language. Train your staff accordingly.

If you really want to impress Japanese guests, encourage servers to learn simple Japanese words and phrases to describe featured dishes. Better yet, put pictures on your menu and translate into Japanese.

Consider featuring local Hawaii meibutsu in your shop as it works on many levels: It’s an effective way to attract Japanese customers; an opportunity to connect them with the Hawaii experience; a boost for the local economy; and it creates the conditions for employees to share aloha with Japanese guests.

Whatever market you serve, whatever measures you choose to employ, value comes from the personality and performance of your employees. A successful Japanese entrepreneur once told me that his only advantage over competitors was his team. Without his people, he said, his company would be nothing but an empty building filled with idle equipment. He worked in a different industry, but his logic rings especially true in the restaurant business.

In today’s competitive crunch it is no longer enough to just satisfy customers. It’s about creating high-value experiences that engage guests on a human level. The Japanese visitor market is hungry for a quality restaurant that can provide a unique culinary experience infused with tasty meibutsu, warm human interaction and kikubari-style service.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


One response to “The Power of Meibutsu

  1. Tim,

    This post is good. You gave me new ideas about a few things.


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