Shiro of Japan restaurant owners Hiro Ishikawa and Peter Faccibene...

Shiro of Japan restaurant owners Hiro Ishikawa and Peter Faccibene at their Carle Place establishment. the other is in Glendale. (May 29, 2012) Credit: Jeremy Bales

In an industry forecast to see less than 1 percent growth in foot traffic annually over the next decade, Japanese hibachi and sushi restaurant Shiro of Japan knows it needs to cast its net wider than its four walls.

The 40-year-old eatery in Carle Place has seen steady declines in foot traffic since the end of 2008, with this year being the steepest at close to 6 percent, says chief executive Peter Faccibene.

"We've had to really re-evaluate our business plan and figure out how to survive the new economy," says Faccibene, 48. "It's very hard for a family to fill up their SUV for $100 once or twice a week and have extra money to go out and dine as much as they did."

High gas prices and the weak economy have contributed to foot traffic declines that have plagued not only Shiro, but the restaurant industry as a whole.

Port Washington-based NPD Group, which has been tracking the industry since 1976, says it's the worst it's seen. "Never . . . have we seen the restaurant industry experience the kind of weakness of this magnitude for this prolonged period of time," says Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst.

While Long Island data isn't available, back in pre-recession 2007, U.S. consumers made 62 billion visits to restaurants nationwide, she notes. For the year ending February 2012, total visits were down to 61 billion.

Fine dining takes big hit

Quick-service restaurants have faired best since 2008, she notes. Fine dining, Shiro's category, has taken the biggest hit, losing 11 percent of foot traffic in 2010. For the year ended February 2012, fine dining saw a modest 4 percent gain in foot traffic, says NPD.

Mirroring that trend, Shiro says its Glendale, Queens, location, which opened in 2006, has seen an uptick in foot traffic this year compared to Carle Place, which Faccibene says is because the Glendale restaurant is newer and in a mall.

That uptick hasn't been enough to grow sales, which have dipped slightly this year and are "$3 million-plus" companywide. So Shiro has been working on branching out and creating new revenue streams over the past couple of years, particularly through corporate catering.

That's the right approach, Riggs says. Restaurants "that are the most innovative, creative and address consumers' wants and needs are the ones that are going to survive in this difficult environment," she says. Expanding beyond your traditional way of doing business and looking for other avenues of growth "will be another way of winning the battle for market share."

Shiro now has about 40 corporate accounts, including Canon in Lake Success; RXR Plaza in Uniondale; Newsday in Melville; and Newsday's parent company, Cablevision, in Bethpage. Shiro provides chefs on-site to prepare traditional Japanese food in the corporate cafeteria setting.

At Canon, Shiro serves up to 160 lunches daily. "The Shiro station is probably the most popular station in the cafeteria," says Bunji Yano, senior director and general manager of the corporate communication division at Canon.

Expanding the brand

"We're expanding our brand," says Shiro co-owner Hiro Ishikawa, 60. Ishikawa and Faccibene purchased Shiro in 2004 from Takashima Corp., a Japanese company that founded Shiro in 1973.

Ishikawa, who emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1974, had already had a long history in the restaurant business, having opened his own sushi restaurant, Taiko, in 1979, which is still in Rockville Centre.

Ishikawa and Faccibene hope adding more corporate accounts will help boost sales. They also host on-site school field trips as an added revenue source.

About 1,000 students a year come to Shiro, says Faccibene. Their visit includes a sushi class where they learn to roll sushi, a tour of the restaurant and a hibachi lunch.

"Our goal would be to at least see a 10 percent increase in sales over the next two years," says Faccibene.

To help reach that goal, Shiro recently forged a strategic partnership with J. Kings Food Service of Bay Shore, which is distributing Shiro's sushi to J. Kings customers including hospitals, colleges and delis. Shiro is also pairing up with Kings at food trade shows.

At a glance

Shiro of Japan restaurants: In Carle Place and Glendale

Owners: Peter Faccibene and Hiro Ishikawa

Established: 1973

Employees: About 40

Sales: $3 million plus

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