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Food & Hunger

This Tokyo Restaurant Lets Diners Earn Their Meal by Working a Shift

For folks in Tokyo who can’t always afford a hot meal, one restaurateur is using a clever business model to ensure that a lack of funds never has to mean a lack of food.

At restaurant Mirai Shokudo in Tokyo’s Jimbocho district, customers have the option to earn one free meal by electing to work a 50-minute shift cleaning, serving, and working the cash register.

Upon completion of this work, customers have the option of receiving their free meal immediately, or electing to donate their meal ticket to another hungry customer by tacking it to a public board at the front of the establishment.

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Known as the ‘makanai’ system, the model is similar to the concept of free staff meals familiar to any restaurant worker.

What sets Sekai Kobayashi’s business apart, however, is its innovative and fundamentally democratic approach to combining community and food. No full-time staff members work alongside Kobayashi, meaning that she completely relies on her customers not just to dine, but also to work. At any given time there must be several soon-to-be customers assisting by serving dishes, clearing tables, and any of the other tasks necessary to operate a successful kitchen.

Kobayashi told The Straits Times the goal of her unique model is foster a place where “everyone is welcome and everyone fits in.”

“I use this system because I want to connect with hungry people who otherwise couldn't eat at restaurants because they don't have money,” she said.

As the world’s third-largest economy, Japan is not commonly associated with hunger, despite the country having a 16.3% poverty rate, extreme income inequality, and staggeringly high rates of child poverty for a developed nation.

Though Japan has a relatively strong economy, it has been reported that up to 20% of children in Tokyo come from financially challenged households that have trouble providing proper food and clothing, according to a government survey.

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An additional benefit of Kobayashi’s method is that it allows customers to gain valuable work experience in restaurant settings. For people who are unemployed or living in poverty, the chance to not only eat for free, but also gain work experience in the restaurant industry almost seems too good to be true. Kobayashi even extends this opportunity to foreigners who are interested in learning Japanese cuisine, or improving their Japanese language skills.

Mirai Shokudo occupies an interesting and inspiring sector of the food industry, one focused not just on the bottom line, but on the people who are a part of that equation. Providing meals for work, and allowing customers to gain experience doing so is just a part of Kobayashi’s conception of the kind of business she always envisioned having.

"Sharing something with others means supporting those with ambition. That underpins my approach to work," she said.