People crowd around a giant stuffed toy, snapping photos and lining up to take a selfie with the super-sized version of Ted, the foul-mouthed bear from the film franchise of the same name. At the recently opened Ted Cafe and Bar, tucked away on the second floor of a building in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya neighborhood, the venue is completely devoted to the Seth MacFarlane creation. It’s nearly full at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, the only time I could get a reservation this week. I’ve come by myself, but the restaurant has kindly placed a Halloween-themed Ted in the chair across from me in what they dub the "VIP room," so I’m never really alone.
The Ted Cafe and Bar serves food and drinks, from a hamburger dish vaguely resembling the bear to a rum-heavy "American Teddy Mojito." Yet the menu ultimately feels secondary to the atmosphere. The customers, mainly young women, document it all, from the chandelier sporting dangling bras to various quotes from the films adorning the wall ("Excuse me, where’s your non-jerk-off bathroom?" being the most disconcerting).
As strange as a Tokyo restaurant devoted to a 2012 film starring Mark Wahlberg and a rude stuffed toy might seem, it’s just the latest themed cafe to inspire advanced bookings and provide an ever-present trend on Twitter. Japan is currently in the throes of a character cafe boom — Japanese media call them "collab cafes" — and in the past two years, almost every famous cartoon and video game series has had a dedicated space somewhere in the country. They don’t all serve up Jell-O shots and gummy bears, but they’ve become a force in the Japanese dining scene by capitalizing on the nation’s newfound love of photo-centric social networking. At the Ted Cafe, the most common noise is the sound of the iPhone camera shutter.
Restaurants, cafes and bars focused around specific anime and video games have popped up in Japan over the last decade, ranging from a Dragon Quest-themed bar in Tokyo to cafes devoted to mecha cartoon series Gundam. Yet these efforts had more in common with novelties such as maid cafes and cat cafes (or, like, Medieval Times in the U.S.) — quirky dining or cafe experiences that are always around.
In comparison, "collab cafes" began attracting attention in 2014, powered by the Guest Cafe and Bar on the seventh floor of Shibuya’s Parco department store. The Guest Cafe hosted concepts focused on a single character — from Sanrio creations to hyperactive anthropomorphic pear Funassyi — for two to three months at a time, creating a sense of scarcity that made the lines stretching out front even longer. Other spots, devoted to lazy bear Rilakkuma and Pokemon, opened for limited runs, too, while the Guest Cafe expanded to Parco stores in Osaka and Nagoya, bringing the concept nationwide.
"Collab cafes" boomed, though, as people flocked to social media services. Finance publication Nikkei reported that from January 2015 to June of that same year, Instagram’s Japanese userbase doubled. The rise of the photo-sharing service impacted dining in much the same way it did abroad, but also prompted even more "collab cafes" to open nationwide. Customers have flocked to venues devoted to Kirby, Sailor Moon, and lazy egg Gudetama.
Unlike most branded cafes in the United States, Japan’s "collab cafes" usually aren’t used to promote a forthcoming product; instead, they take advantage of already-popular franchises and characters. Companies owning the rights to said characters are eager to license them to private companies such as the Guest Cafe, which handles the set-up and day-to-day operations — licensers interviewed by SankeiBiz said the cafes make for great promotion, as long lines and photos posted online operate almost like a billboard for the character or brand in question.
According to Sanrio PR manager Kazuo Tohmatsu, Sanrio works with several companies, like Guest, to take advantage of their restaurant-industry experience. "Both of our companies plan together to design the cafe and develop the menu," Tohmatsu says. Since most collab cafe customers tend to be young women or tourists, Sanrio tries to find open spaces in shopping districts such as Shibuya or Harajuku — or inside malls. Lately, the concept has been exported to other parts of Asia, and even a few inroads into California.
According to Tohmatsu, the temporary nature of the cafes — and their singular experiences — is part of their appeal. "The environment presented in our character cafes and the food featured in our menus can only be experienced in that place," he says. "You can only take photos and then share them online if you go there." Over the past year, even lesser-known characters can benefit from a themed cafe. Sanrio character Pompompurin has long been more mid-tier compared to Hello Kitty or My Melody (both of which had "first-wave" cafe concepts), but a collab cafe dedicated to the round golden retriever opened in Harajuku this past year and proved immensely popular. When Pompompurin later topped back-to-back Sanrio Character Rankings, some speculated his cafe helped.
Ted Cafe and Bar might seem an unlikely entry into this boom, but it highlights everything that has made the concept succeed. The Ted films were big hits in Japan, the original 2012 movie grossing the equivalent of $44 million USD. The titular teddy bear is cute, always a plus (Ted plushies exist in abundance in the nation’s claw machine games), but it also helps that the Japanese translation of the film smoothed out excess vulgarity and MacFarlane’s stream of American pop culture references. In Japan, the 2015 sequel even got recut into a kid-friendly version. Ted still has edge compared to most Japanese characters, but he’s not nearly as boorish in Japanese —just a little dimwitted.
Fittingly, Ted Cafe and Bar featured at least one stuffed Ted at every table, and during my visit, most patrons held it in their lap while eating. Although most of the decor references last year’s Ted 2, the DVD for that movie came out in January, so it’s more about giving fans a Ted-themed experience. Posters encourage visitors to upload photos to Instagram using the hashtag #tedcafebar, while staff happily snaps photos when a selfie won’t do.
The actual food at "collab cafes" rarely tastes all that special — entrées are relatively straightforward, while desserts tend to overdo the sweetness. They look far better than they taste, built for Instagram. Ted Cafe and Bar followed a similar path, with nearly everything resembling a bear. Everyone around me photographed their food, but by the time they left, pieces of their meals remained. Many on Twitter have complained about the offerings, especially considering prices: most main dishes cost the equivalent of $15 USD. My "Ted Face Pizza" tasted like something you’d find at a convenience store, and came with an olive mouth in permanent frown on top a clump of mashed potato. It was like the pizza itself was aware that no one cared about its taste, and only existed to generate online "likes."
Of course, I took multiple pictures of the Ted Face Pizza and shared them with numerous friends. The food itself was forgettable (this might be too kind), but everyone seemed to be there to get a few good photos of the stuffed Ted goods and the Ted-shaped food. This is exactly the formula that has fueled Japan’s "collab cafe" boom, and as strange as a Ted-devoted cafe seems, it followed that formula closely. Still, I zipped right by the gift store on my way out. My photos of sad pizza — and the thought of the ensuing online attention for them — was all I needed.
Patrick St. Michel is a writer based in Tokyo whose work has appeared in The Japan Times, Pitchfork, The Atlantic and more.
Editor: Erin DeJesus