DENVER — A viral TikTok video of a Denver Japanese restaurant created chaos, challenges, and changes for the small business.
In 1996, Gaku Homma opened Domo Japanese Country Restaurant. His restaurant provides a unique dining experience rich in flavor and culture that has attracted loyal customers over the last 25 years. Clients have the choice of sitting inside surrounded by Japanese décor or outside in a traditional Japanese garden. The locally owned business became a Denver staple over the years and in 2021, Zagat ranked the restaurant as one of the top five Japanese restaurants in the U.S. But nothing prepared the business owner and staff for the power and impact of social media.
A customer recorded a TikTok video — less than one minute and without narration — of the restaurant in July. But that's all people needed.
In just one day, the video received hundreds of thousands of views.
"After it went viral, we definitely just got inundated with customers, almost instantaneously, so there was a big shift in our normal clientele," said Chef Koichi Ninomiya.
He said an employee pulled up the video and it had more than half a million views in one day. For several days, people lined up outside the restaurant before the doors opened. The line was so long it reached an apartment complex more than half a block from the entrance.
Ninomiya called the video a blessing and a curse.
“It’s nice to have people coming in, but at the same time, it’s just a little bit too much for us to handle as a staff and as a whole, we are not equipped with enough staff to handle the demand,” Ninomiya said.
The business is home to many returning clients who went from experiencing a 30-minute maximum wait time to three hours or more.
“It was busy to the point where we had to turn away customers,” Ninomiya said.
Homma, the owner of the restaurant, said customers grew frustrated with the wait time.
A Facebook post on the restaurant’s page stated that customers repeated insults and shouted hateful words at other people patiently waiting. Police were called several times to keep outbursts from escalating.
“There have been some disgruntled people,” Ninomiya said.
Ninomiya said trying to predict how much food to prepare and order became difficult.
Homma was overwhelmed by the boost in business and closed for two weeks to prepare and set guidelines. He decided to scale back from seven days a week to three days a week and limited the seating capacity to keep people safe during the pandemic.
“We are still busy. We hit our capacity almost every night on those three nights,” Ninomiya said.
He estimates he’s putting out 300 plates a day and that doesn't include appetizers for the tables.
A customer waiting to be seated with her friends was in town visiting Denver and said a friend recommended dining at Domo. She said she typically searches hashtags on TikTok to find new restaurants and cool places to visit.
“It highlights the food, it highlights the ambiance. A lot of the time, it’s the hidden gems that don’t spend a lot of money on marketing, so you just get to see these real authentic type places too,” the customer said.
Ninomiya stressed they’re grateful for the extra business and simply asked for patience and understanding. He said like most restaurants, they’re short-staffed.
“We do want to serve everybody. You just have to come early, put your name down, be patient, and try not to get frustrated with us, and we will do the best we can,” Ninomiya said.
Signs outside the restaurant now warn people about the extended wait time and remind customers that every dish is cooked with care.