The introduction of the "casual restaurant" concept has changed the lives of many white-collar workers in Japan. The genre quickly gained popularity and its name has become synonymous with a dominant mode of dining.
With over 20 years of success in Japan, Watami Group has been giving Hong Kong this "casual" gastronomic choice since 2001. According to Sam Chiu, HR and training manager of Watami (China) Company Limited, customers can enjoy restaurants which are faithful replicas of those in Japan.
"It is the authenticity that makes the difference," Mr Chiu comments. "Unlike the majority of local restaurants, Watami comes directly from Japan and is set up and operated by people who have acquired an understanding of Japanese food from our long established mother company. Besides this foundation, genuineness is also reflected in our products and services."
Feel good taste good
To replicate the many distinctive dishes and original flavours, the restaurant adopts the same recipes, cooking methods and ingredients as its Japanese counterparts. Dishes are presented in modest portions so that customers can try out many different delicacies.
Traditional style is maintained and customers are encouraged to stay in the peaceful and comfortable environment as long as they want and no reservation service is offered in order to avoid rushing the experience.
"We maintain the unique Watami philosophy in every aspect," Mr Chiu notes. "Like the decoration. It's in line with the main theme design of the original Watami in Japan. Although there are variations in design among the 13 restaurants in Hong Kong, we accentuate the basic Watami dining experience by applying the red and brown colour themes."
In contrast to the customer profile in Japan, which is mainly middle-aged men, Watami customers in Hong Kong are young white-collar workers and office personnel of both genders. While in Japan these casual restaurants are open from dinner time to late at night, in Hong Kong they tend to operate between lunch and midnight.
"In addition to seasonal highlights, 80 per cent of the original main menu is maintained. The remaining selections are somewhat modified to fit the local market. Set meals are also offered at all Hong Kong branches," Mr Chiu points out. "Excellence is consistent across all Watami restaurants. To ensure food and hygiene standards, we have our own quality control teams. These specialists are responsible to set and monitor procedures both in the kitchens and at serving places. For example, before a dish is carried out to customers, a team member will check its presentation to ensure it meets the standard."
Mr Chiu further points out that each season, Watami's product development team, including experts from Japan and local experienced specialists carry out integrated studies on the main trends in Hong Kong to review the menu for that quarter. The team will then create signature dishes for trial in which the president and general manager of the group are involved.
"Ideas for improving food items will also be developed from the customer comment cards. They give us a lot of feedback in other subjects too. Our management team will read them one by one to assess how our restaurants are performing. It is also a practical way to find out how we can do better," Mr Chiu remarks.
Watami renovates its restaurants every year. Without altering the main theme, the revamp allows each restaurant to reflect some individualism so that customers are refreshed by the variations in lighting and decor.
"To maintain our service level, we carefully select the right candidates and provide continuous growth opportunities for them," Mr Chiu continues. "Most of our staff are young people because we are more concerned about their mindset than work experience. When taking on new blood, we want to see if they share our belief that 'everyone has a dream'. If someone comes in and says he just wants to learn how to run his own restaurant from the job, he will get a post in Watami."
Beyond initial classroom training, in-restaurant trainers keep an eye on junior staff and coach them. Relationships among employees are built and reinforced via a variety of recreational activities organised by the company. "A good relationship is important for all of us. Of course, talent will also dictate individual career prospects," Mr Chiu adds. "In the short term we don't plan to add new branches in Hong Kong but as the gateway to the giant China market, we will definitely need talent from Hong Kong in our future development."