| Yuji Nakamura |
TOKYO (WP-BLOOM) – Minoru Tanaka has set off a food fight in Japan.
The 52-year-old is president of the company behind Tabelog.com, the country’s largest restaurant-review website.
By getting diners to post over 5.9 million reviews of nearly 800,000 eateries, Tanaka has brought unprecedented transparency to one of the world’s best dining scenes.
He’s also infuriated chefs and owners along the way.
The local dominance of Tabelog has made it a target of complaints about everything from unfair reviews and incorrect information to the ruination of Japanese cuisine itself – no minor charge in a food-obsessed nation with more three-star Michelin restaurants than any other.
“Tabelog’s anonymous reviews aren’t really different than what’s written on the wall of a bathroom stall,” said Hiroshi Narumi, owner of Espresso Factory in Tokyo’s Sendagi neighbourhood. “They don’t take any responsibility for what they’ve created or the influence they wield.”
Tanaka says his website has finally given voice to customers and some restaurant owners are simply uncomfortable with the direct feedback.
“Restaurants and other businesses are at long last being forced to listen to consumers,” Tanaka said in an interview. “And they’re finding it disturbing.”
Controversy hasn’t slowed business at Tabelog, which is owned by Kakaku.com Inc. Revenue at the restaurant unit jumped 79 per cent from a year earlier to a record 3.1 billion yen (US$26.3 million) in the quarter ended in September, outpacing a 26 per cent increase for the company as a whole.
A former banker, Tanaka joined Kakaku.com’s board in 2002 after overseeing the acquisition of a large stake for his former employer. He became president in June 2006 and helped boost the company’s market value sevenfold to US$3.35 billion over the past eight years.
Tabelog’s sales growth is driven by subscription fees from restaurants, which made up almost 70 per cent of revenue, according to Yuki Nakayasu, an analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG, who recommends buying the stock.
As of September, the number of restaurants subscribing to Tabelog’s premium service had nearly doubled from a year earlier to 37,000. For a monthly fee starting from 25,000 yen, the service promotes restaurants in user searches and allows them to edit certain parts of their listings.
Tabelog’s rise has drawn rivals seeking to emulate its success in Japan’s US$203 billion-a-year dining-out market.
In April, San Francisco-based Yelp introduced a local-language website focusing on Tokyo and Osaka. Tanaka said Yelp began operating in Japan after he rejected an offer from the US company to buy Tabelog last year. Kristen Titus, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Yelp, declined to comment on Tanaka’s statement or their progress in Japan.
This month, Newton, Massachusetts-based TripAdvisor partnered with Tabelog’s largest domestic competitor Gurunavi Inc. for reservations at local restaurants. Gurunavi has about 585,000 restaurant listings in Japan.
Tokyo-based startup Retty Inc., which unlike Tabelog requires restaurant reviewers to reveal their identities, has grown fivefold in the past year and had more than four million active monthly users in Japan as of last month, according to company spokeswoman Yuka Hoshino. The site listed over 230,000 restaurants throughout the country.
Momoko Nakafuji, who helps her parents run the dining bar Momo in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district, said she initially welcomed the service and signed up for a subscription. Over time though, she said, Tabelog did more harm than good.
Nakafuji said the restaurant, which has operated for more than 20 years and specialises in rice omelettes, began seeing regulars crowded out by new diners after Tabelog appeared. She estimates almost 80 per cent of customers who are generated by Tabelog don’t become regulars, and this in turn pressures restaurants to focus on pleasing broad audiences rather than striving for authenticity or taking risks with new dishes.
The feeling of being monitored and the fear of getting a bad review also put the staff on edge, she said.
“The experience of running a restaurant was a lot nicer before the Internet and Tabelog,” Nakafuji said. “Now, the threat of a bad rating plays into the Japanese mentality of aiming for perfect customer service. This creates a lot of unrealistic expectations, which lead to stress and frustration.”