On April 9th, 1967 undefeated Japanese superhero, Ultraman, was finally taken down by a powerful monster named Zetton. 54 years later, on the exact same day, Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi – a branch of the mega Japanese restaurant group Zetton Inc. – officially reopened its restaurants in Waikīkī after almost a year of being defeated by COVID-19.
What does it look like to come back victorious after being beaten for so long, and what does it take to be a successful leader in hospitality? Makoto Hasegawa, director of operations for Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi, shares his story.
In 2020 Hasegawa temporarily closed six restaurants, furloughed 30 managers and laid off over 100 employees. At the height of its success Zetton Inc. boasted nearly 100 restaurants worldwide. Now, down to a “modest” 75 it is focusing on restructuring and rebuilding. In Hawaiʻi, Hasegawa has made it his personal mission to help the company get back to where it once was.
Hasegawa, who was born in Japan, began his career in hospitality at the renowned Tokyo Kaikan – a sophisticated, sprawling event venue with several high-end restaurants, banquet halls and bars in Tokyo, Japan. Hasegawa called it his “hospitality university.”
Starting as a busser in a French restaurant, that hosted banquets of up to 300 people, he studied tirelessly to work his way up. Hasegawa remembers carrying large trays of hors d’oeuvres, serving hundreds of them at once using the French service technique where you pick up food with one hand using a fork and spoon like a pair of tongs.
“You had to go fast,” Hasegawa said. “It was like a hospitality army. I was like a hospitality soldier.”
But, Hasegawa didn’t yet know how to battle a war. At home he practiced the one-handed technique by opening matchbooks, pulling out each match and setting them on a plate one-by-one, and then reclosing the matchbook, over and over again.
“I was lucky I had that training at a young age,” he said.
Five years later Hasegawa was skimming a magazine when an article about a restaurant group that owned six restaurants in the Nagoya Prefecture caught his eye. He started to daydream about the group opening restaurants in Tokyo and then overseas.
“I don’t know, I just felt it,” he said about Zetton Inc. “I wanted to join the team before they grew.”
In 2000, Hasegawa did join the team, and aside from a one-year stint cooking Turkish food and pursuing his other passion – surfing – on the gold coast of Australia he has been with the company 21 years.
Hasegawa had just obtained permanent residency in Australia when the owner of Zetton Inc. called. He was starting a big project in Tokyo and wanted him to be a part of it. Hasegawa made a deal and returned to Tokyo. Three years later when Zetton Inc. opened a restaurant on the Sydney Harbor, Hasegawa got to return to surfer’s paradise. He managed the popular restaurant with a postcard view of the Opera House for five years, until one day a large ship came into port permanently blocking the view and forcing the restaurant to shutter. When Waikīkī became next on the Zetton docket, Hasegawa was asked if he would mind moving to Hawaiʻi. His reply: “Oh, anytime.”
Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi was flourishing before COVID-19. In 2009 the group opened Aloha Table – its flagship restaurant and a concept that has 20 more like it in Japan. Goofy Cafe & Dine, Heavenly Island Lifestyle, Zigu, Paris.Hawaii and Aloha Steak House followed, all within a few blocks of each other.
The decision to close all restaurants for almost a year did not come without a fight. In late March 2020, after the first stay-at-home order was issued on Oʻahu, and restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms, Hasegawa kept Zigu, Heavenly Island Lifestyle and Aloha Steak House open for takeout. He and his team created new menu items and promotions for locals, invited media in to help spread the word and teamed up with delivery services in an effort to simply just stay open for customers.
Within one month sales dropped 80% across the board. The streets of Waikīkī were desolate. It was looking grim for the monster restaurant group that had once seen lines out the door every day. After a pause in June to restrategize, Hasegawa and his team made one more valiant push, but when a new two-week stay-at-home order took effect on August 27th Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi had hemorrhaged so much money the only hope for survival was to close all restaurants completely until tourism returned.
Hasegawa stopped operations as gracefully as he could. All 30 furloughed managers got to keep their health insurance and although negotiations with landlords were challenging, ultimately the landlords were kind and helpful. Procuring some financial aid was crucial. In addition to what he secured locally, Hasegawa was also lucky that Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi had a strong backing in Japan to help keep operations afloat.
“in 2020 Zetton Hawaiʻi was dead,” Hasegawa said. “It died.”
Hasegawa struggled emotionally with the new challenges COVID-19 brought to an already demanding job.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I had a lot of things I never experienced. The biggest one was facing our staff. … we did furlough for exempt staff, but for hourly, it was layoffs. That one is the hardest thing to do as one of the company managers. Yeah, I never experienced that. … that was one of my hardest experiences.”
Seven months later in March 2021, Hasegawa took his family back to Japan to attend a Zetton Inc. conference with Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi’s CEO Daisuke Kikuchi and Corporate Executive Chef Keigo Yoshimoto to discuss the restructuring and revival of the company.
Hasegawa returned to Hawaiʻi alone.
After the conference, Hasegawa knew what lied ahead. He would need to be available 24-hours a day for the reopening of Zetton Hawaiʻi restaurants.
“I didnʻt want to make my wife lonely, my son lonely,” he said, explaining why he decided to leave his wife and baby in Japan for three months. “Theyʻre spending time with Grandpa and Grandma. Itʻs better for them. Then I can be 24 hours available.”
Reopening the restaurants came in stages. First, Heavenly Island Lifestyle and Aloha Steak House, then Zigu and Aloha Table, and finally Goofy Cafe & Dine – all with modified hours of operation. Hasegawa and Kikuchi had to be strategic in order to not overload the corporate office or open before there was enough business. They moved slowly, monitoring the changes with tourism and making sure their staff was ready. Paris.Hawaii still remains lights out and in limbo.
“Coronavirus stopped everything,” Hasegawa said. “So, for the reopening, it’s not just a simple reopening. It’s not easy. We have to be a really strong unit, and then it’s like “OK, let’s go.”
Big changes were made in menus and service. Before COVID-19, Zetton Inc. Hawai’i restaurants were Japanese tourist destinations, but with travel to Japan at a standstill the restaurants have a new customer target. Chef Yoshimoto implemented new dishes primarily for American tourists and O’ahu locals. Besides cooking for different palates, menus were also altered to be more feasible for smaller kitchen teams to produce. Not knowing how busy they would be and losing 30-40% of reservations due to social distancing forced the restaurants to operate with skeleton crews and create a new policy of capping each guest’s dining experience to 1 ½ hours.
Nobody could have predicted the staffing issue that ensued once business started to return. Hasegawa struggles to find enough hourly employees to work. He explained that during the shut down many of his employees moved back to Japan or the mainland. Some, now, simply do not want to return due to the fact that they can make more on unemployment than working in the restaurant.
Restaurant hours, originally modified to protect against a lack of business, are now shortened because there are not enough employees to work all shifts.
Staffing challenges aside Hasegawa and Kikuchi’s strategy is working and the team is back to doing what they do best: creating positive memories for guests. Lines to get in are back, local food writers are loving the new menu items and Yelp reviews are positive.
“People are saying, ʻthat’s a hidden gem,’ Hasegawa said about Zigu.
After losing money for 13 months straight Zetton Inc. Hawai’i finally started to break even last month, and Hasegawa predicts another 10-20% growth when Japanese tourists return.
Always heroically upbeat, Hasegawa sees this time as an opportunity for his team to get stronger before restaurants go back to cranking at full capacity. Like its television mascot, Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi represents triumph against the impossible.
“We work to meet the needs of the Waikīkī,” Hasegawa said.
Zetton the monster may have been a villain, but Zetton Inc. Hawaiʻi is anything but. With core values that include meeting customers’ needs with passion and humility, practicing Kōkua (help)-based teamwork and considering the environment with every company decision, Hasegawa and his team exceed their mission of “Working in the spirit of aloha and the traditions of omotenashi.”
The Ultraman episode that aired 54 years ago is not why Hasegawa and his team chose that date for the grand reopening, it was just a coincidence, but it does make a nice excuse to perhaps turn April 9 into an annual Zetton day in celebration of surviving the pandemic. A reminder for Hasewaga to never give up.
Aloha Steak House – 5pm-10pm (last call 9pm), closed Tuesdays, 320 Lewers St. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96815, (808) 600-3431, alohasteakhousewaikiki.com
Aloha Table – Lunch 11:30am-2pm, Dinner 4-10pm, closed Mondays, 2238 Lau’ula St. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96815, (808) 922-2221, waikiki.alohatable.com
Goofy Cafe & Dine – 7am-2pm, closed Tuesdays, 1831 Ala Moana Blvd., suite 201, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96815, (808) 943-0077, goofy-honolulu.com
Heavenly Island Lifestyle – Breakfast & Lunch 7am-2:30, Dinner 4-9pm, closed Wednesdays, 324 Seaside Ave. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96815, (808) 923-1100, heavenly-waikiki.com
Zigu – 4-11:30pm, closed Wednesdays, 413 Seaside Ave. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96815, (808) 212-9252 zigu.us