TOKYO -- Old-fashioned drinking establishments popularly known as sunakku bars have long dotted Japan's city- and townscapes. These pubs are typically run by a proprietress whom customers call "Mama." The mama makes dishes -- sunakku is the Japanese pronunciation of the borrowed word "snack" -- while also engaging customers in conversation and coordinating karaoke singalongs over the counter.
Today, though, intensifying competition from cheap Western-style cocktail bars and Japanese-style izakaya pubs are forcing sunakku owners to embrace an up-to-now unthinkable customer base.
Nursing home residents.
Atata -- a Yokohama-based company that runs a clinic for acupuncture, moxibustion and massage therapy while also providing day care services -- is franchising its kaigo sunakku bar concept and expects to sign up 200 franchisees across the country.
Kaigo means caregiver.
The idea for a caregiving bar came from Atata's elderly customers, many of whom voiced a wish that there was somewhere they could go to eat out and have a couple drinks.
The company's president now sees a latent market made up of Japan's swelling numbers of elderly folks who like to let it loose and go drinking on occasion.
The original kaigo sunakku bar caters to elderly customers, offers barrier-free premises and provides care from licensed professionals.
The pub is Ryugujo, which opened in 2014 in Yokosuka, a bedroom community to Tokyo and Yokohama. It takes its name from a well-known Japanese fairy tale in which a dragon king lives in an undersea palace of the same name. In principle, the Yokosuka palace serves only customers 65 and older as well as those who are physically disabled.
Its proprietors are mindful that for seniors who want to go out to drink, making the journey to a bar and safely tottering home can be a challenge. To relieve any commuter anxiety, the bar offers a pickup and drop-off service that uses a vehicle designed for physically challenged people. The service is part of a package that includes two hours of all you can eat and drink merriment in the bar. Cost: 8,000 yen (about $74) per person.
The bar includes handrails and has other barrier-free features so wheelchair users can easily move around.
At most snack bars, the mama manages everything, but at Ryugujo-style pubs, licensed caregivers are there to deal with patrons.
The service staff, if requested to do so, will monitor a customer's alcohol intake. Also, all food is served in bite-size pieces that can easily travel down old throats.
The bar has two bathrooms, and caregivers attend to patrons' needs if necessary. The front door is locked with a password so as to keep inebriated seniors from wandering into the street.
There are other differences between the kaigo pub and traditional snack bar. Ryugujo confines its business hours from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., while most snack bars are nighttime-only ventures.
One more differentiating factor: Ryugujo's customers must make reservations.
The pub is almost always fully booked by groups of nursing-home residents, a company official said.
Each franchised bar is to have 25 seats and a staff of four, including licensed caregivers to provide customer pickups and drop-offs.
Most readers will have picked up on the ideal location for franchises -- in proximity to one or more old folks' homes or similar facilities. The Ryugujo team defines proximity as within a 30-minute drive.
"There is a great deal of potential demand for the remodeling of existing snack bars in hot-spring and other tourist resorts into snack bars with nursing care," Atata President Takaya Sasaki said. "Franchisees can also expect demand from younger family members who need a break from taking care of aged grandparents."
Atata, which began to solicit franchise bids in September, has received applications from the Tokyo, Osaka and two other regions.
Though snack bars have long been viewed as typical drinking holes for middle-aged and older salaried men, younger generations consider them outdated. Atata hopes to quickly reach its goal of 200 by signing up owners of existing bars looking to remodel and better cater to Japan's fast-graying demographics.