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The brains behind Darling Square’s most popular izakaya have waved off concerns about the challenges facing the hospitality sector and formed a new Japanese dining group with ambitious plans to open venues across Sydney and Melbourne.
Nakano Darling’s Tin Jung Shea has teamed up with childhood friend Mitomo Somehara and longtime customer Chris Wu to form Hatena Group, which will open a new Japanese saké bar in Sydney’s Darlinghurst in late September. The name ‘hatena’ means ‘question mark’ in Japanese and is a nod to the group’s lofty ambitions. “We want to dream and want to achieve the unknown,” said Shea. Wu likens Shea to Merivale’s pub baron and jokes he is the “Justin Hemmes of Japanese dining”.
“The dream for our group was always to provide authentic Japanese dining experience.”
Left to right: Hatena Group co-owners Chris Wu, Tin Jung Shea, and Mitomo Somehara. The trio are opening a fourth venue in Darlinghurst.Credit:Rhett Wyman/SMH
Shea saw the Sydney dining scene shift last year as lockdowns forced the closure of some peers in Chinatown and beyond.
“The ones that have survived have reinvented themselves to be very profit-driven, less about customer experience, less about hospitality,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“The interaction, the good service, we’re strong in that. We wanted to see more of that in Sydney, and we don’t want that to be lost in this current climate where everyone’s struggling.”
The new saké bar, Nomidokoro Indigo, will soft-launch in Darlinghurst later this month and is the latest venture led by Shea whose other venues include Japanese eatery Yakitori Yurippi and intimate standing bar Tachinomi YP in Crows Nest, now equally co-owned with Somehara and Wu.
The restaurants hadn’t raised prices for several years. But with input costs and general inflation on the rise, they realised it was no longer viable for the business to keep shouldering the climbing costs of wages and ingredients.
“Up until this year, we would have copped it,” says Shea. The team had discussions about lifting profit margins through bigger price increases but turning over fewer tables, but are deciding to contain price increases as much as possible in order to stay busy.
For the roll-with-the-punches trio, it was a wake-up call to take a firm approach to finances. “You can’t keep doing things on gut feeling,” says Wu.
Hatena Group co-owners Chris Wu, Tin Jung Shea, and Mitomo Somehara.Credit:Rhett Wyman/SMH
Amalgamating all three venues into a singular ‘group’ made sense: Hatena Group was formed in June, streamlining back-end functions like payroll, promotion, marketing and accounting. To keep momentum going, they added an executive chef and a general manager.
For the first time, a structured management team focused on the numbers gave Shea, Somehara and Wu room to plan three months ahead instead of the following week, and the breathing space to think about expansion.
But the co-owners admit they have not spent much time worrying about the staffing shortages that are crippling the hospitality sector, driven by the absence of the migrants, backpackers and international students that often power venues. “We didn’t really think about that,” says Somehara.
A substantial factor in the trio’s success has been their Japanese-inspired philosophy of customer service that they worry is being slowly eroded by new technologies adopted by foodservice outlets during the pandemic. Diners can count on never seeing a QR code beacon on their tables.
“I hate it,” Shea says. “We used to go out on Friday night and do rounds, but now everyone will be on their phones [using] QR codes, ordering for themselves.
“I think that’s part of holding onto the dream of old-school hospitality, where people get together, there’s community.”
Nomidokoro Indigo – an intimate bar that seats just 15 people within the venue – isn’t even open yet, but Hatena Group is already thinking about their next venture, possibly in Melbourne.
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