Pub chain leader in Japan urges new prime minister to help restaurants affected by COVID-19


TOKYO, Sept. 23 (Reuters) – Miki Watanabe, managing director of Japanese pub chain Watami, has urgent advice for the next prime minister: provide fair compensation to restaurants affected by COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants.

Watanabe, himself a former politician who spent six years in parliament, has had a relationship with outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga since his time in politics.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will choose a new leader on September 29 who will replace Suga as prime minister since he is the majority party.

Speaking to Reuters from one of the company’s restaurants ahead of the vote, Watanabe’s story epitomizes the challenges the new Japanese leader will face in helping businesses recover from the bite of the pandemic.

Last year Watanabe converted this restaurant from an izakaya-style pub, where small dishes are usually served with alcohol, into a yakiniku-style pub where diners grill their food at the table with robots serving meat and other items to reduce labor costs.

It now plans to convert 40% of its 300 outlets into these high-tech barbecue restaurants, which also include the use of conveyor belts to distribute the dishes, by next April.

It is Watami’s strategy to better meet consumer tastes and bypass government emergency restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 which has reduced hours of operation and banned the serving of alcohol.

Customers have lunch at the yakiniku barbecue restaurant named “Yakiniku no Watami”, operated by Watami Co., in Tokyo, Japan on September 17, 2021. Photo taken on September 17, 2021. REUTERS / Issei Kato

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Watanabe has strongly criticized the government’s COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, a rarity in typically warm Japan.

“I was frustrated with the (government’s) response to the pandemic,” Watanabe said. “It’s too slow and too sloppy.”

LDP leadership contenders have pledged to respond to the pandemic and roll out new stimulus to ease the pain, but whoever succeeds Suga, the restaurant industry will face a “long battle” with COVID-19, Watanabe said.

Government compensation for businesses affected by the restrictions was too generous for small businesses but insufficient for large businesses like Watami, making it “unbalanced and unfair,” he added.

“We want the new government to pay fair compensation for business suspensions based on the size of the business so that everyone bears a fair amount of losses.”

Japan’s restrictions have so far focused on asking restaurants to close early and refrain from serving alcohol, but not all restaurants and bars are following the soft-law rules.

Watanabe said he wanted the new chef to exercise more power over restaurants to comply with the restrictions.

Reporting by Akira Tomoshige, Rikako Maruyama, Akiko Okamoto and Tetsushi Kajimoto; Edited by Christian Schmollinger

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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