The ‘M’ factor

When visiting a popular upmarket shopping mall near my home in Bangkok recently with my wife and kids, I horrified them all on arrival with the revelation that I was not there to actually go shopping. Instead, I was there to scout for new ideas to improve the business results of Fujiyama, the Japanese fine-dining restaurant at my hotel in Karachi, which had been steadily losing market share to a fierce local rival despite the arrival of a new Japanese head chef.

On hearing this admission, my youngest son, age 13, who seems destined to follow in his father’s footsteps — or should I say fill his father’s chef’s uniform, because he loves to cook and eat — said to me, “Dad, I have seen your Japanese restaurant menu on the Internet, and I think it’s way too long. Why are there are no pictures of the dishes? And it looks way too expensive. And why don’t you have a buffet on the weekends for families?” Apparently the buffet is what he and his friends most enjoy when they visit their favorite Japanese restaurants in a city where many of the young and trendy generation prefer Japanese food rather than Thai food, which in itself is an interesting societal development.

I was interested to learn more about his favorite Japanese restaurant, so he led us to one of these popular new eateries in another local shopping mall, where we had to stand outside in a long queue for half an hour, which did not please me at all. However, when we finally entered and were handed iPad menus containing hundreds of menu items, photographs and videos of the preparation of these mouthwatering dishes, I was completely hooked on “the M factor.”

I was truly enthralled and amazed by the high-tech menus, the vast open kitchen manned by more than 20 fast-moving chefs, the small boats of freshly cut and pressed sushi and sashimi sailing around the counter on a special waterway and the youthfulness and charm of the servers, who all were trained to smile and bow graciously when taking and serving our orders.    

As we were leaving the restaurant after a truly delightful and surprisingly inexpensive dining experience, I asked the restaurant manager how many covers she served on an average weekend. The answer almost floored me, as she said that they could serve up to 3,000 guests on a busy weekend, with an average check of US$20, which means of course they can well afford to offer their menus on iPads and keep their prices low enough to avoid upsetting the market threshold, which for mall shoppers is much lower than standalone restaurants.

It had also been interesting to see that the 300-seat restaurant had a fair share of every market segment, from high school and college students out shopping with parents in the mall to young couples cuddling in cubicles and even the elderly, all of whom seemed to enjoy being part of this newly emerging and apparently very popular Japanese buffet restaurant experience.

What lessons did I learn from my visit to this mall restaurant? Well, first of all I needed to quickly develop a new, more user-friendly Japanese menu with photographs and get it mobile, which we are now working on. Secondly, I needed to develop and launch a Japanese buffet concept aimed at a new family market on the weekends, which we have done, and in the process doubled our revenues since its launch in January. And third, if you want to know what will make a restaurant appeal to families and kids of all ages, ask them before you finalize the menu — you may be pleasantly surprised with their suggestions, and with the results.