An unusual restaurant in the Jinbocho district of Tokyo offers meals in exchange for 50 minutes of labour. This unique “open-source” eatery, called Mirai Shokudo, is the brainchild of former engineer Sekai Kobayashi, 33, who wanted to create a place for hungry people who otherwise couldn’t afford to eat out.
There is no permanent staff other than Kobayashi at the restaurant, which seats 12 at a counter. Customers can either pay for their meals or work one of two daily shifts to earn their meal. The lunch shift consists of serving orders, clearing tables, and other such tasks, while the evening shift, which starts after closing, consists mainly of cleaning. The shift can be exchanged for either a free meal or can be “paid forward” in the form of a voucher that is left at the front door for a hungry but broke patron. First-time customers must eat at the restaurant once before working a shift to familiarize themselves with the setting. So far over 500 people have opted to work for their meals.
Kobayashi opened the restaurant two years ago, aiming to create an inclusive space where everyone is welcome and fits in. She had previously managed a few pop-up cafes during her time as a student but went into engineering after graduating from Tokyo Institute of Technology’s faculty of science. After working for IBM Japan Ltd. she moved to Cookpad Inc., which runs a recipe site. The company had an office kitchen where employees could cook, eat, and share meals.
“My colleagues really liked the lunches I made for them. This led me to strongly consider opening my own restaurant,” Kobayashi told China Daily. “Afterward, I received vocational training at a leading restaurant chain and other places before opening Mirai Shokudo.”
She spoke to China Daily about the career change, which can be a daunting notion for many.
“Those looking for jobs might feel that making the wrong choice could ruin the rest of their lives. But it’s okay to change course later on. That’ll eventually lead you in a direction that you feel strongly about. That’s what happened to me with Mirai Shokudo.”
“Working as an engineer actually was not a waste of time,” she added. “To manage my restaurant, I adopted an open-source model — a system through which software design is made available for free to the public so that everyone can improve upon it.”
Kobayashi posts the restaurant’s business plan and finances on its website for anyone to see, and she collects input from the public on how to improve it. The information is also available to help those who might want to open restaurants of their own.
One such hopeful is a 56-year-old former teacher who has worked at the restaurant regularly since July 2017 and plans to begin a second career in Tokyo’s thriving food industry.
“It’s an exciting job because I work with a new person every time. It’s interesting to develop a good rapport and work with others,” she said to China Daily.