It's not often that the world's most powerful man drops by for dinner.
But maverick Japanese restaurateur Kozo Hasegawa can count US President George W. Bush as a customer -- once, anyway.
Now, Hasegawa is targeting business in Bush's own backyard to cook up profits that have gone cold at home.
"It's really severe now," laments the 52-year-old founder of Global Dining Inc, describing the impact on his business from Japan's stale economy.
But the energetic Hasegawa believes he has a simple recipe for success that will work overseas.
The trick, he says, is to lure in customers with thematic interior designs, then keep them coming back by linking the pay of staff to their customer service performance -- a radical concept in Japan, where tipping is rare and discouraged.
Hasegawa's company has been at the vanguard of innovation in Japan's traditionally unadventurous restaurant industry.
Where it stands side-by-side with its competitors is in confronting a seemingly endless economic downturn.
The company's net profit for the current year is expected to dive 70 percent from the previous year to Japanese yen 201 million (US$1.7 million), but this is mostly due to losses on foreign exchange investments and costs from opening new restaurants at home.
And simply making a profit is an achievement in Japan's highly competitive restaurant industry, which was hit hard by an outbreak of mad cow disease last year on top of rising unemployment and falling prices.
The company's share price has also been on a steady decline, plummeting around 95 percent to lifetime lows near Japanese yen 500 recently from a high of Japanese yen 11,600 in 1999.
With Japan's economy showing no signs of a rebound, Hasegawa says his great hope now is expanding overseas.
Serving up success
When Bush rolled into town in February, rock-and-roll loving Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi figured casual was best and chose Hasegawa's noisy Gonpachi chicken kebab restaurant, in Tokyo's raucous Roppongi nightlife area, for dinner.
To some, it was a surprise choice.
But it was also one being made by many Tokyoites, who are attracted by the eatery's cavernous, mediaeval atmosphere of dark wood and staggered levels adopted by the college dropout for his restaurants when he started out nearly 30 years ago.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Hasegawa's approach, especially in seniority-obsessed Japan, is his radical personnel management system.
The newest employee can reap huge dividends based on the judgment of his peers, but laggards are sent back to square one.
It's an approach that some critics have denounced as too harsh, but it has given Global Dining staff the incentive to produce and maintain high standards, Hasegawa says.
A waiter hired at an hourly wage of Japanese yen 850 (US$7.06), for example, can rise to the level of restaurant manager with an hourly salary of at least Japanese yen 2,500 in just months if his performance is approved by a majority of his co-workers.
A failure to meet a goal will get him sent right back to where he started.
"A restaurant manager must raise sales, cut costs and manage his people, using a whip at times," Hasegawa says. "They have to run their restaurant as if they were running their own business.
"Our work environment is strict but there is no seniority system. It's fair," he adds.