TOKYO -- For many Japanese restaurant chains, the battle for employees is becoming even fiercer than the competition for customers.
Students and "freeters," or job-hopping part-time workers, are the backbone of the restaurant industry, allowing chains to keep labor costs down and profits up. But Japan's economic recovery means more of this once-plentiful labor pool is landing full-time employment elsewhere. As a result, chains are struggling to secure workers despite offering higher hourly wages.
The hardest-fought battle for part-time workers is taking place around Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo's busiest railway stations.
In early June, an outlet of gyudon beef bowl chain Yoshinoya put up posters advertising openings for part-time positions. The shop, located near a busy intersection in front of the station, was offering exceptionally high wages -- 1,500 yen ($14.5) per hour for night shifts and 1,200 yen for day shift. The nearby outlets of Yoshinoya's two main rivals, Sukiya and Matsuya, were also promising high hourly wages of between 1,100 and 1,375 yen.
To put this into perspective, hourly wages for part-time workers at restaurants in the Tokyo metropolitan area as a whole average just 971 yen, according to a recent survey by employment information company Recruit Jobs.
Some chains operating around Shibuya Station are growing desperate to attract applicants. A Gyu-Kaku yakiniku barbecue restaurant has put up a part-time recruitment poster taller than a person, while a Gusto family restaurant outlet located on the second floor of a building in the area has a now-hiring sign on ground level at the foot of the stairs leading up.
The competition for employees is not limited to Tokyo, nor is it limited to restaurant chains. Convenience store operators, rushing to open new outlets, are also hungry for staff.
"Some restaurants in urban areas have raised hourly wages by around 50 yen in the past year," an official at Recruit Jobs said.
New ways to cope
Family restaurant operator Skylark started concentrating its part-timer recruiting activities at its headquarters in May after determining that individual outlets were no longer able to cope on their own. Skylark now matches applicants with outlets that meet their needs, such as location and work hours.
Skylark "has been able to avoid a serious adverse impact (from the tight labor market) on its operations," said President Makoto Tani, though he added, "We still have trouble recruiting night-shift workers."
Not all restaurant chains are having the same difficulty securing employees.
An Excelsior Caffe coffee shop near Shibuya Station was recently offering an hourly wage of 950 yen, significantly lower than either gyudon restaurants or izakaya pub chains.
"Part-time jobs at cafe chains are popular with young people," said Kazumasa Wakasugi, president of Dynac, which operates the Hibiki izakaya pub and other restaurant chains. "Those seeking part-time work are being swayed by the image," he said.
Restaurant operator Toridoll has set a target of increasing the total number of its Marugame Seimen restaurants, which specialize in sanuki udon noodles, to 1,000, including outlets abroad. Toridoll plans to expand the chain's operations beyond its traditional base in suburban areas and into more urban locations.
But President Takaya Awata admits this will not be easy. "Hourly wages in Tokyo are too high," he said. "We cannot open new outlets if we do not find properties with low rents."
Labor shortages could become a major hurdle for many expansion-minded restaurant chains.