As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Eater checked in with Austin’s defining restaurants to see how the pandemic has affected business, service models, and more. Next up in this series: Tatsu Aikawa, co-owner and co-executive chef of Texas roadhouse/Japanese izakaya (and Eater Austin’s Restaurant of the Year for 2017) Kemuri Tatsu-ya.
Eater Austin: How is COVID-19 pandemic affecting business right now?
Tatsu Aikawa: This pandemic has affected our business in so many ways, it’s hard to quantify. From the furloughing of almost our entire staff, to the seven-and-a-half months we were closed for dinner service, to the chance to rethink our entire menu and service model — the effects have been drastic.
To this day, we have only been able to bring back about 50 percent of our staff and we are seeing about 20 percent of our previous guests each night. Some of these changes have been purposeful; we removed many tables to accommodate social distancing and we have chosen to seat approximately 35 percent of our previous capacity. These unforeseeable, crazy circumstances have been devastating to our industry, but we are focused on putting our guests and staff safety first and making the necessary adjustments to keep pushing forward.
What is the current service model?
We have moved over to a set menu service, what we’re calling Omakase Club. Each night we have three different options available for guests to choose from, including sets for vegetarians and pescatarians. Occasionally we will throw in a special or two. We have closed our indoor dining room and restructured our restaurant layout to accommodate guest flow and outdoor seating only on our covered and heated patios.
With Omakase Club, we turned our focus to “mottainai,” which means “what a waste” in Japanese. We have significantly reduced our footprint in regards to food waste and it allows us to have a better overall idea of what our expected food needs each week. Considering the uncertain times we are living in, the last thing we want to be doing is throwing away perfectly good food; waste is not a part of our culture as a restaurant, we consider it irresponsible. With that, we are also taking the time to get creative and experiment with making our own seasonings and ingredients from scratch, like studying zymology and growing our own koji products, misos, ferments, etc. and making our own version of katsuobushi (bonito flakes), which is a common base for sauces and broths in our dishes.
We are also employing more people than absolutely necessary. In the past, for the numbers we are currently doing, you could have seen half the staff we are currently using. This means that more people can be employed and that in our opinion, each guest is getting even better service than ever before.
Are y’all planning or thinking about any future changes (due to COVID-19 or otherwise)?
We will continue to change and evolve the offerings that we serve each night, so a guest’s omakase experience may be different if they come in a few weeks later. We are working closely with local farmers and purveyors like HausBar Farms, Johnson’s Backyard Garden, Farm to Table, and Minamoto to produce highly seasonal dishes that are unique and fun. It’s important to support the local economy — these partners are struggling, just like us.
We’re taking things day-by-day, but we’re considering when the timing is right to go back to the izakaya-style dining with our new a la carte menu. We’re trying to focus on the positive and our team has time to experiment, learn new culinary skills, and R&D new dishes. We see Omakase Club as a chance to showcase what we’re working on and give people a sneak peek of what may make it onto the brand new menu. There have been some unique things we’ve added, like our Chinmi Box, almost like a “Japanese charcuterie” to go with sake. Our beverage team has some exciting things in the works too, and they’ve done some fun virtual sake tasting events, like the last one with Antonelli’s Cheese Shop.
From a logistical point of view, it also simply doesn’t make sense yet from a waste perspective to return to our regular izakaya service yet. We have to consider what might happen if things get even worse before they get better: Could we be shut down again? Should we shut down again? We have to consider what is best for our team, our families, and our guests.
What measures are you currently implementing to prevent the spread of COVID?
Every person who enters the building must first have their temperature taken, and there is an entire protocol around this procedure. Our team wears masks and gloves at all times throughout the day; gloves are changed regularly and hands/forearms are washed when this happens, even though gloves were worn. All surfaces are sanitized multiple times a day and high touch areas are sanitized at minimum once an hour.
Our guests have their temperature taken before they are seated, and there are multiple hand sanitizing stations throughout the building. Masks are to be worn at all times, unless they are seated at their table. Dividers are up on the booths and tables are placed a minimum of six feet apart. We are only seating outside and have no plans to open the interior any time soon.
Tables are sanitized when the servers arrive for the day and again just before service starts. We’ve built in time so that each table is sanitized after each guest departs; this includes seats, rails, backs — everything.
Guests have water bottles specific to their table and our runners only take out one table’s food at a time. This also goes for bussing tables — one table at a time.
Though we always pride ourselves on a clean work environment, the steps we are now taking would have seemed drastic only a year ago. These steps add a lot of time and literal “steps” to service, but are worth it in our opinion.
How has business been so far?
Bookings are down, even by our new standard, and each night we have more cancellations than we have reservations. These cancellations mean that we have prepped food that now has no home and because of the lower amount of traffic we see, it is hard to cover these losses with walk-in tables. We do utilize this food as “family meal” when we can, but losses are unavoidable. At the end of the day though, we are happy to be open, happy to be serving food to our community, and happy to have work. We’re just trying to keep everything afloat so everyone can keep doing what they love to do.
We will continue to do our best to be as safe a place to eat as you can find outside of your home. We are people, we have the same concerns that you do, but it is our job to be public-facing. We are doing everything possible to make our community safe while providing the best experience.