Thursday, January 9, 2014

Memories of Japan: Gracious Service at Chamonix Coffee House

Most people end up ordering some little dessert item
with their coffee, which can be rather expensive.

Today is Friday, January 10, 2014.

I lived  along the Toei Mita subway line, about halfway between Kasuga and Hakusan Stations, just off a large street called Hakusan-dōri, a little less than two miles north of the Imperial Palace. Although Kasuga Station was usually closer to my destination, I enjoyed walking a long the shopping street towards Hakusan Station.  Not far from the station entrance, there was a coffee shop on the 2nd floor of a building called Chamonix.  I realized at some point that it became a "members-only" bar at night, but during the day, it was a public coffee shop, and I enjoyed having coffee there. 

The reason was that the woman who owned the shop had a certain way about her that put me in mind of what a real geisha must have been like in the old days.  There was just something about the way she served coffee that made a customer feel especially welcome at her establishment.  She never wore kimono, but I could easily envision her wearing one.  She never stopped to chat, either, but her smile was genuine, and just the way she put the coffee down on the table was so graceful and gracious.  She never initiated any conversation, as an American waitress would, but she seemed friendly, if a bit distant. 

Most coffee shops have either a bakery with fancy
individual cakes or a sandwich shop or both. The
tables are small, and the chairs are smaller.  You
get service with a smile, though, even though there
is no tipping in Japan. Photo credit: Rory Johnston
Japanese waiters and waitresses don't make tips, but they don't make that much money, either, and most of them are part-time employees.  The exceptions are people like the woman at Chamonix, who owned the place.  Japanese waitstaff (except for bartenders) don't tend to be very chatty with customers, and for the most part they do a good job of serving their customers.  Of course, in Japan, very few customers ask for recommendations or make orders with a lot of substitutions.  If you ask for a recommendation, you will be told that everything on the menu is good, and if you ask for a substitution, the waitstaff will either be puzzled or uncomfortable.  Your request may or may not be honored.  If it is honored, it might not be exactly what you expected.

My ex-husband was in the restaurant business.  When we divorced, he was a manager at a Japanese-style family chain restaurant called Satō.  I once took my American girlfriend there while my husband was working, and since I was the "manager's wife," I got click-heel service.  My husband came over to our table to ask my friend if everything was OK, and if she wanted more rice.  She said, "Yes, a small bowl, please," in English.  My husband then brought her a small bowl. Nothing in it, just a small bowl.  And put it in front of her.  And left.  My friend and I were stunned for a long moment; then we broke out giggling.  Pretty soon we were on a roll and we couldn't stop laughing.  My husband came back to ask what was going on.  His English was never great, but I was a little shocked to realize that he had misunderstood her.   That should probably have been more of a red-flag for me, as far as marital communication went, but whatever... live and learn.

I did notice recently that there is now some sort of system for tourists that marks restaurants that are willing to "deal with" gaijin (foreigners). That is certainly a change from when I was there.   At a lot of places I went, especially if I was alone or in the company of another foreigner, the staff would look a little pained and I sometimes got the impression that the waitstaff drew straws to see who would have to serve us.  

When you walk into a coffee shop, if someone doesn't come to seat you or serve you right away, you seat yourself and shout out, "Sumimasen!"  (Excuse me!)  Sometimes you'll hear an answering shout, "Hai!"  (Yes!)   That's your cue to go ahead and order.  When you hear "Hai!" back, you know they got it, and by golly, they bring it, too.  It takes a while to make coffee in Japan, though, so don't go into a regular coffee shop and expect to get instant service.  Also, not every place is equipped to make coffee "to go," either.  (It's rude to walk down the street and eat or drink at the same time.  At least, it was when I was there.)

I imagine coffee chains like Starbucks may be changing the way Japanese drink their coffee.  For one thing, when I was there, there were not as many choices when ordering food, and the Japanese were clearly uncomfortable at having to think about size, flavor, doneness of meat, salad dressing choices, soup choices, etc. that we take for granted here in the United States.  Starbucks does offer a full range of ordering choices in Japan, just as they do here. 

The other day I read that Starbucks (known as "Sutaba") opened its 1,000th shop in Japan last summer.  Their first shop was in fashionable Ginza in Tokyo back in 1996.  They have shops in all 47 prefectures (states).  Their business motto is a traditional one in Japan: “Ichi-go ichi-e”.  Literally, that means "one time, one meeting."  The idea is that they try to get things right the first time, because there may never be a chance to go back and get it right.  Still, I don't think Starbucks service will ever rival the service I got at Chamonix.

I also read that Starbucks has started putting 9 millimeters less coffee in their cups because their customers always want cream in their coffee.  In order to avoid spills from overflowing coffee cups when cream is poured in, they realized they had to put less coffee in the cup.  Japanese customers at Starbucks pay $3.60 for a small cup of coffee.  The same cup of coffee at the flagship store in Seattle costs $1.70.  Starbucks made 3.2 billion yen in a six month period about a year ago, according to the article.  That's over $30 million.

About using cream: Japanese coffee has traditionally been served quite strong, which is why so many people use cream.  (And not milk.  Cream, real cream.  If they do serve milk, they tell you that.  They don't call it cream but serve milk, the way coffee shops do here in the United States.)  

Japan is where I learned to drink iced coffee.  That's
popular, now, in the USA, too, but it wasn't when I
came back from Japan in the mid 1980s.
As someone who knew several people in the restaurant business, from owner, to manager, to waiter and busboy, I often heard it said that if you start a restaurant in Japan, you probably won't make much money, but as long as you have a reasonably good location and make an effort to please your customers, you'll probably not go out of business, either.  Japan is a country in which people don't do that much entertaining at home.  People tend to meet friends at coffee shops instead of inviting them over for a cuppa.  Still, restaurants go in and out of business with some regularity, and it didn't surprise me much, when I looked at a Google Maps street view of the entrance to Hakusan Station that I couldn't find the Chamonix Coffee Shop anymore. Even though many of the shops that were there 30 years ago are no longer there, the area where I lived retains the same character and charm that it did years ago when I lived there.  The street view was so familiar, in fact, that I burst into tears when I saw it, and when I was able to locate the apartment building that I used to live in.  That's when I realized that, in writing these posts about Japan, I am finally doing the deep inner work of processing my experience of living there.  :-)

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