Spirits giant Suntory bets on drinking helmets for pub revival

Suntory, the Japanese maker of Jim Beam whiskey and Courvoisier cognac, wants consumers to swap face masks for drinking helmets.

With many Japanese still reluctant to return to pubs and bars amid the coronavirus pandemic, Suntory chief executive Takeshi Niinami last month handed a group of top managers a seemingly impossible mission: design headgear that will keep drinkers safe while recapturing the pre-coronavirus experience of a fun night out.

The world’s third-largest spirits maker, whose brands also include Yamazaki whiskey and Maker’s Mark bourbon, was hit hard as the country’s pubs, bars and restaurants came to a near-standstill when a state of emergency was imposed in April to contain the virus.

It was lifted in late May, but Tokyo is now grappling with a spike in infections that sent the daily tally for the Japanese capital to a new record on Friday. With nightclubs taking some of the blame for fanning the outbreaks, izakaya pubs, long a favourite destination for male office workers to gather, are under renewed scrutiny, too.

That gives managers at Suntory, whose non-alcoholic brands include Ribena, Lucozade and Orangina, another incentive to come up with a design that works.

“We are working on how we can have izakaya gatherings using face shields,” Mr Niinami said in an interview. “It looks weird but being weird may be acceptable in the new normal.”

The team at Suntory have so far generated several ideas, from face shields that resemble an astronaut’s helmet to a sun visor hat that customers could keep on while eating and drinking. The hope for both is that they contain any virus-laden droplets while allowing people a proximity to each other previously standard in bars and pubs.

Japan’s hospitality sector has so far relied on a mix of social distancing measures, disinfectants, masks, temperature checks and plexiglass shields on tables to keep people safe.

Already punished by the lockdowns governments imposed across the world, the hospitality sector faces a fraught reopening given the risk that alcohol reduces discipline on social distancing and many pubs, bars and restaurants only have indoor space.

Experts in the UK will be watching to see whether infection rates have climbed since pubs were allowed to open earlier this month. In Texas, which is in the grip of a severe outbreak of Covid-19, governor Greg Abbott has said he reopened the state’s bars too quickly.

Suntory, which competes against the likes of AB InBev and SABMiller, has already tested some prototypes on employees of izakaya pubs.

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But company officials admit that they have yet to come up with a winning design, with some staff at the pubs where the prototypes were tested complaining they were cumbersome and awkward to wear. It is also unclear whether customers would be willing to reuse a shield that has been used by others even if they are washed and disinfected.

Although Mr Niinami has recently rejected several ideas from his team because they fell short on reducing infection risk, he has not given up.

“It may not be a state of art technology but we have to think outside the box,” said Mr Niinami, pointing to the need to be creative in this crisis.