“Dine Out” experience sends a chef, table designer to your home


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

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

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

Setofuji has been in the business for over 80 years. It mainly purchases ceramic and glass tableware produced in Japan and overseas and resells it to restaurants and hotels in the city.

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

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

Overcome difficulties together

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

While Setofuji emphasizes maintaining a long-standing “win-win” relationship with its customers, Saito thought it was time to act together to overcome the difficult situation.

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

He saw that a service sending cooking specialists to private homes was growing in the Tokyo metropolitan area and elsewhere. He thought his company might be able to provide a better and more unique service by leveraging its strengths.

Saito is certified as a “catering space coordinator”, meaning he can enhance a dining room with tableware, flowers, lighting, and other items.

He expected hosts of house parties and festive gatherings to be the main customers of this service.

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

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

Quality, affordable price

Even though he had a plan that sounded good, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to grow the plan into a profitable business. He contacted Y-biz, an advisory body that makes suggestions to local small and medium-sized businesses to increase their profits.

Since Saito didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the meals, but still wanted to serve an affordable dinner, he worked hard to set the prices.

He had discussions with the relevant entities, including the consulting body, for more than six months and finally concluded a contract with three restaurants specializing in French, Japanese and Chinese cuisine respectively.

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

Basic dinner fees start at ¥29,000, including cooking and serving, table setting, ingredients, and tax. Service is for two or more people, and fees increase for larger groups.

To publicize the service, the company used government benefits to help companies suffering from the pandemic, mainly to create a dedicated website and to create and distribute around 10,000 newspaper inserts.

Changing needs

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

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

Saito said, “I would like to continue to meet the changing needs of consumers and improve our service.”

Foreign demand for ceramics

Ceramic tableware industry shrinks, with shipment value slightly above 21.1 billion yen in 2020, down 8.8% from a year earlier, according to production statistics of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for 2020.

According to the Japanese Ceramics Industry Organization, based in Nagoya, there are several reasons for the drop in value. For one, there are plenty of low-cost imports available. Diversifying consumer preferences and shrinking population would also be factors.

The coronavirus disaster has made the situation worse. This caused the industry’s business to stagnate with hotels, ryokan inns and restaurants. Ceramic fairs and similar events have been cancelled. Tableware manufacturers and wholesalers are directly affected.

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

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