If you’re unfamiliar with Japanese maid cafes, they are exactly as the name suggests – small restaurants or diners where the workers dress up (cosplay) in maid uniforms.
Not only do they look the part, but the majority of cafes act the part by playing out a server-master relationship with patrons.
The servers are almost always women, generally extremely cute, and younger – usually in their early 20’s but not always. There have been a couple successful attempts at “butler cafes” where young, good looking men would serve a predominately female customer base.
In addition to butler cafes, there have been many different variations (or gimmicks) on the concept since it exploded in Akihabara just over 10 years ago, but the fundamentals of the concept remain. Customers, usually otaku or the curious, pay a premium for their food in order to experience a specific role-play dining experience.
And Business Was Good
Business exploded after the introduction of the concept and continued to see popularity well throughout the 2000s. Even some family owned restaurants in rural areas of Japan began to adapt the concept and utilized a few maid hostesses.
Eventually, due to the increased competition, business owners began to look for ways to one-up each other by introducing different gimmicks and novelties. One company even offered a main cafe experience on a train, serving customers while they rode from Ikebukuro to Chichibu on the Seibu-Ikebukuro train line.
The concept wasn’t just limited to Japan however, it was unique enough for business owners to experiment with the idea in their home countries, with similar style maid cafes opening up in Russia, China, Singapore, London and several in the US. But as with all business fads…
The Bubble Pops
Unfortunately for fans of the concept, business has sharply declined over the last couple years. 282 maid cafes have opened up in Japan since 2001. As of 2012, only 132 remain open. It’s a sizable number, but it still means that more than half of the maid cafes in Japan have closed up shop and/or moved onto something else.
While the lifespan of a fad in Japan is notoriously short, shorter than a Lindsey Lohan rehab stint, maid cafes have shown some serious staying power. 10 years is an eternity for a fad of this nature. Did the fad simply run its course or were there other contributing factors?
Getting What You Pay For?
Business owners place the blame for the high priced menu on labor costs. They claim that due to the nature of the cafe, they have to hire attractive women who are willing to take on the role of a subservient maid.
Apparently they are a scare resource because the cafe owners say that they must dole out premium salaries in order to attract such workers. They say that the high labor costs make their profit margin substantially less than that of a normal cafe. They also blame misunderstanding and prejudice citing that many potential customers may mistake their maid cafes for sex shops.
Still, 2ch users had their own opinions about the situation:
“It’s set up like a cabaret club but you can’t touch the women and their profits only come from drinks and small meals. It’s a difficult business model to sustain.”
“I’m not paying ¥1200 for a omelette that some girl wrote ‘nyan nyan’ on in ketchup.”
“They’re always filled with dirty otaku… It’s not really appealing to new or casual customers.”
“Who thinks, ‘I’m hungry, I’ll go eat at a maid cafe’? Nobody, that’s who.”
“I went to one once, it was over ¥1000 for a glass of juice. That is insane. The service wasn’t particularly good either.”
In order to raise profits, they seek to increase the overall money spent per customer. To achieve this, shops have begun selling additional products and services. Many cafes have games that can be played with the maids for a price, some of which involve a form of gambling. Others rely on selling shirts, stuffed animals, anime & manga, even pictures of you with the maid.
Whether their efforts to adapt are successful or not remains to be seen. It may be that only the truly innovative will find success. Businesses which offer a truly unique service at a great value are bound to succeed no matter the industry. Unfortunately by then, it’s very possible that the next fad may have already taken hold.
Source: SankeiBiz (Japanese)