‘Dining out’ experience sends chef, table setting designer to your home

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Setofuji President Masaki Saito at the company’s rental space in Yamagata on Aug. 12.

YAMAGATA – A team comprising a chef and a dining space designer can be dispatched to private homes or elsewhere to create a stylish dining experience. This service is provided by Setofuji, a specialty tableware store in Yamagata, in cooperation with customers restaurants.

It also provides the service at a rental space in the company building.

Setofuji has been in the business for more than 80 years. It mainly purchases ceramic and glass tableware produced in Japan and overseas and sells them to restaurants and hotels in the city.

Masaki Saito, 36, took over his father’s post to become its fourth-generation president in 2017. The company continues to be known for its robust business.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has been a great challenge for Saito. Restaurants, which accounted for half of its sales before the pandemic, stopped placing orders with the company.

Overcoming difficulties together

Saito felt that the firm’s customer restaurants were suffering more than his company.

As Setofuji puts emphasis on maintaining a longstanding “win-win” relationship with its customers, Saito thought that it was time to take action together to overcome the difficult situation.

He was aware that people tend to refrain from going out these days, and thus spend more time at home with family members.

He saw that a service dispatching cooking specialists to private homes was expanding in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other places. He thought that his company may be able to provide a better, more unique service by taking advantage of its strengths.

Saito is certified as a “dining space coordinator,” which means he can enhance a dining area with tableware, flowers, lighting and other items.

He expected the hosts of parties at home and celebratory gatherings would be the primary customers of this service.

He was also convinced that “events to experience the feeling of dining out in a safe, comfortable environment” would be in great demand.

He thought that providing an all-inclusive service involving cooking and cleanup would greatly reduce the burden on the hosts of these events.

Quality, affordability

Although he had a nice-sounding plan, it was not easy to know how to develop the plan as a profitable business. He contacted Y-biz, an advisory body that makes suggestions to local small and midsize businesses to increase their profits.

As Saito did not want to sacrifice the quality of meals, but still wanted to serve an affordable dinner, he worked hard at setting prices.

He held discussions with the entities concerned, including the advisory organization, for more than half a year and finally entered into a contract with three restaurants specializing in French, Japanese and Chinese cuisine respectively.

The service was launched in July last year. It was named Co-Co., a shortening of its concept, Cook & Coordinate.

The basic fee for dinner starts at ¥29,000 including cooking and serving, table setting, ingredients and tax. The service is for two or more people, and the fee increases for larger groups.

To publicize the service, the company used the government benefits for helping businesses suffering in the pandemic, mainly to create a dedicated website and to make and distribute about 10,000 newspaper inserts.

Changing needs

One client of the service is a company operating a professional soccer team. At the request of the company, a French dinner was served to people related to one of the team’s sponsors in a camper van at a soccer stadium.

Yasushi Miura, 45, the chef in charge of the dinner, said: “I was grateful as it was when I had far fewer customers in my main business [due to the pandemic].”

Saito said: “I would like to continue meeting changing consumer needs and improve our service.”

Overseas demand for ceramics

The ceramic tableware industry is shrinking, with its shipment value being slightly more than ¥21.1 billion in 2020, a decrease of 8.8% from the previous year, according to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry’s Current Production Statistics for 2020.

According to Japan ceramic industry organization, based in Nagoya, there are various reasons for the decline in value. For one thing, many low-priced imports are available. Diversifying consumer preferences and the decreasing population are also said to be factors.

The coronavirus disaster has aggravated the situation. It has caused the industry’s business with hotels, ryokan inns and restaurants to stagnate. Ceramic ware fairs and similar events have been canceled. Tableware manufacturers and wholesalers have been directly affected as a result.

A positive trend in recent years has been increasing demand for high-quality Japanese ceramics, mainly among wealthy Chinese. Expanding the overseas market is likely to be the key to overcoming the situation.