The Rise and Fall of SaisakiJuly 20, 2015
The lady in the kimono didn’t hand us a menu. As a kid, this confused me. Looking back on it, that first trip to an eat-all-you-can place was very confusing. “What do you mean we just get up and get the food? So I can get whatever I want? As much tempura as I want? Really?” The answer to this was yes, but on the condition that everything I got had to be consumed otherwise we’d be set back PHP 500 for my meal. This was, of course, the 90s, a time when PHP 500 was a damn big deal, especially to a kid whose purchasing power was limited to the candies-in-a-jar selection of a sari-sari store. Therein lay my biggest childhood dilemma. I could go ham and pile as much as I wanted on my plate and take on whatever my 10-year-old body could handle but—no leftovers. And there are always leftovers.
Saisaki, before going the way of the buffet, was just the usual Japanese restaurant, serving an a la carte menu. The upside was that actual Japanese chefs were doing the cooking, like Chef Isao Takada, brought in during the 80s to impart authenticity to the food. It was a time when the Internet was just starting out and there were no food bloggers to tell you what and where to eat. So for most of us, Saisaki was the first step towards understanding sushi, to using chopsticks, to eating raw fish that wasn’t swimming in vinegar, and to that sharp pain that stabs the top of your head when you’ve had too much wasabi. It was an introductory course to umami even before it was considered a flavor—one that is hard to replicate in Filipino cooking. It was a delightful treat, a new taste, and despite being confined to eating tempura, sushi, sashimi, and miso soup, it was something that I always looked forward to.
Of course, there was always that insurance policy of “50% off with no leftovers” but, still, Saisaki became the most convenient place to satiate that Japanese craving. The price was considerable enough that birthdays, graduations, anniversaries—any reason to celebrate, really—had Saisaki as one of the top places to go to. If it were my birthday, my parents wouldn’t even ask where we would eat anymore. I would plan for it, train for it, the opportunity to be set loose in a Saisaki, and no, kimono-clad lady, I don’t need your help.
For Triple V, the owner of the buffet franchise, the shift made sense business-wise. It’s cheaper to prepare food in bulk instead of dishing it out per order. That expands nicely to yakiniku—enter Sambo Kojin, the newest member of the Triple V family—where customers cook their food as part of the experience. The staff requirement needed to serve customers is a lot less, compared to serving each table since customers line up themselves. It made sense for the diner as well. The buffet offers its customers a range of options, all wrapped up in a convenient and affordable package. This works just right for consumers who are conscious about cost-vale and feel they can get more than what they paid for. Though while people flock to the buffet tables and lines snake around the restaurant space, variety and quality are problems that hang over their hungry little heads.
Today, there’s a buffet of buffet restaurants in city. From the extremely decadent, like Sofitel’s Spiral, which has its very own cheese and cured meats room, to the economical, like Don Day. Saisaki is somewhere in the middle but somehow it’s no longer what it used to be. It’s now Dad’s World Buffet as the sign says (‘includes Saisaki and Kamayan’ is mentioned below “World Buffet”). And that seems to be the case for all of them: a world buffet, where single-cuisine offerings don’t work, where it can’t work. Customers want a larger assortment in their dishes. It’s the same reason why buffets constantly replace a portion of their menu, constantly cycling so that diners always have something new on the menu. This often results lackluster dishes sitting on the side and customers oblivious to their existence. It’s become a race for quantity on both ends. A trip to the Saisaki website reveals the different promos they have for diners: one free buffet for a group of 10, 40 percent off for groups of 100 and more, and freebies for party packages worth PHP 20,000 and above, followed by an invitation to celebrate birthdays, debuts, christening, events, weddings, and anniversaries in their restaurant.
The glamor of Saisaki is gone, drowned in the rush for volume like all the other buffet places in its bracket. What was once an invitation is now merely a challenge: eat all you can. Okay. And you really can’t blame them either. With a more diverse food scene growing, they adjusted and did what it had to do and business is still good. They’re still making a killing although they’re very far from the Saisaki I remember and grew up with. Distance allows for that perspective but it also imparts a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I should visit the kimono-lady again. Looks like I still have some Saisaki leftovers to finish.