Yesterday, a friend of mine living in New York linked me to a new maid cafe (website here) opening in downtown Chinatown. While I’ve been to Japanese maid cafes in my previous travels, I’ve yet to visit a permanent one in the US. Which got me thinking, why? And yet, I also knew the answer; Japanese-style maid cafes cannot be successful businesses in the US. And here’s my long rant about why.
Cute maids at the newly opened Maid Cafe NY
So historically, in the US, there has only been a handful of attempts at opening permanent maid cafe establishments, all of which so far have ended in failure. Most of them close within half a year of opening, usually due to being unable to pay for rent. The root cause of this is usually underestimating the Western cultural difference; unlike in the heart of Akihabara or Nipponbashi in Japan, otaku culture in the US is far more conservative and it’s population more frivilous.
A Japanese maid cafe capitalizes on it’s services rather than its quality as a cafe. This applies to both the atmosphere and the employees themselves. It’s ability to sell solely depends on its maids being able to convince patrons to spend large amounts of money to not only enter the settlement (i.e. base entry fee) but also pay for the extremely overpriced food and drinks (i.e. minimum order). These atmospheres also have to be enticing enough in the sense that such moods cannot exist anywhere else. As well, there has to be a high inflow of patrons/regulars to break even with the interior upkeep costs as well as high wages.
In Japan, this is possible for a number of reasons. First, the general Japanese culture leans towards very conservative human interaction (this may seem to contradict my prior point, but I’ll get to that). As well, modesty is highly emphasized, so public sexual appeal is very limited. When it comes to maid cafes, however, this is the complete opposite; teasings for high levels of intimacy and interaction, and open sexual appeal (within the scope of the cafe itself and surrounding area). Essentially, the taboo nature of the cafe’s highlights is it’s strongest selling point. Someone who has very limited opportunity to interact with others in their daily routine would be the kind who is desperate enough to drop that 9,000 yen ($90) just for the chance to spend 30 minutes talking with a cute girl. In a sense almost akin to reverse psychology, while the Japanese tend to act very conservative in their daily interactions, when it comes to personal hobbies and interests, they are far more extreme and open (and thus willing to break out with the wallet). That, combined with the dense population and targeted store location (i.e. in areas of high otaku traffic) allows the high operational costs to break even and overall be profitable.
In the US, however, this is not the case. In comparison, North Americans tend to be a lot more open and literal when it comes to human interaction. As well, American media openly focuses on and highlights sexual appeal without shame. The “teasing” appeal of Japanese maid cafes are ineffective because, compared to western standards, they are not all that “taboo” nor unique (just see restaurants like Hooters). The idea of paying someone large amounts of money just to play a game with them or have your picture taken with them doesn’t work in the US. The other big cultural difference is spending habits. I may be generalizing here, but while Americans are known as the “big spenders” in comparison to other countries, they do so on a per-average basis, rather than on singular event basis. Maid cafes are settlements that Japanese otakus are willing to save up a weeks worth of income to blow on one day, on a regular basis. I can’t see that matching American spending habits (would you spend entire weeks eating nothing but bread so that you can drop $200 on a single dinner at the end of the month?). Aside from the general spending culture here, anecdotally I’ve noticed that the average American otaku tend to be far more frivilous when it comes to anime-related spending. While the Japanese will happily dish out hundreds of dollars for anime DVD, PVC figures, and collector items of their not-even-favourite anime series, at every single anime convention I’ve been to, the most popular merchandise are small trading figures or plushies, usually no more than $50. The degree of spending willingness in the US for otaku-related goods compared to in Japan is drastically less, and this similar sentiment carries over to services like maid cafes. Not to mention, we don’t exactly have any high-otaku-concentration areas like Akihabara or Nipponbashi (it is interesting to note, even in Japan, there are very few maid cafes outside of those two areas).
Another general issue is lack of experience. Specialty cafes in the US are far less common than in Japan (where family-run establishments are quite frequent). I’m no business student, but it’s pretty obvious that opening a niche cafe for an unstable market is a huge business risk and doomed to fail. And in almost all cases, it has. The closest US maid cafe success story so far has been the Royal/T Cafe in Los Angeles. Last time I checked (two years ago), it was the only one still operational (the other two that had opened prior to that had both closed down due to lack of business). According to Yelp, it closed down last year, being the longest running maid cafe in the US (opened in 2007). And it wasn’t even a true maid cafe (it was a regular cafe with waitresses in maid outfits). It was also just a side business connected to a larger art gallery. Those two reasons, however, are probably what kept it alive for so long; it had a parent establishment that could help buffer it’s operational costs and it followed an operational model closer to the more familiar standard cafe model. In comparison, this new “Maid Cafe NY” looks like a fresh startup being run in a random rented store slot in the middle of Chinatown, powered by nothing more than the hopes and dreams of it’s employees. Which makes for a great story, but not a successful story. Just like how animes like those in “Working!!” or “Kaichou wa Maid-sama” are great for entertainment, but terrible business models.
tl;dr – As much of an otaku as I am and no matter how much I hope to see a maid cafe find success here in the US, I don’t like wearing rose coloured glasses. In other words, don’t get your hopes up.
That said, moar pantsu pl0x!