When Naoko Okamoto started Sydney’s first pet restaurant, she just wanted to break away from the routine of her corporate job. Ten years later, when most businesses are struggling to survive amid COVID-19, she's getting ready to start her second food business, only for her furry friends.
"Please bring your own ketchup and salt", is what Naoko Okamoto tells people who ask her if they can eat the food cooked at her dogs-only restaurant.
“Sometimes people come to my restaurant and look at the menu and make an order for themselves by mistake. I’m commonly asked by customers if the food can be consumed by humans.
“It’s all healthy, good food after all,” Ms Okamoto chuckles.
A Japanese immigrant who moved to Australia 23 years ago, Ms Okamoto started Chew Chew in Sydney in 2010.
The restaurant has a range of offerings for the pooches, including its à la carte menu, a special menu for sick dogs and those with health conditions and gourmet food for special occasions such as birthday cakes.
While some items are available for cats as well, there' nothing on the menu for dog owners though.
“We have a café next door. You can grab a coffee and a sandwich there,” Ms Okamoto says.
The most popular dish for the canines is chicken risotto, she says, that most firstcomers usually order. The favorite menu among the regulars now is omelette.
She says the idea of opening a dogs-only restaurant came when she was looking to break away from the routine of her corporate job to follow her passion.
“I knew my passion for dogs and cooking and I wanted to combine both. In Australia, you are not allowed to cook food for humans and animals in the same kitchen. That regulation eventually led to the idea of opening a pet-only restaurant, which was quite unique,” Ms Okamoto said told SBS Japanese.
The restaurant struggled for the first few years. But it's become so popular now that some customers drive from far away places to it.
Before COVID-19, the small restaurant was a vibrant social place where people brought their dogs for their social gatherings, birthday parties or just a casual meal. But since the social distancing restrictions were imposed, she turned it into takeaway-only.
“We are a restaurant but 50 per cent of our business was already takeaways before COVID-19. Our customers regularly buy food from us. We are kind of essential like a supermarket to them. So even if we had to close eat-in COVID-19 had little effect on us,” Ms Okamoto says.
Rather Ms Okamoto is in the process of starting her second pets-only eatery in a dog park in Sydney.
"Some people just want to have fun with their dogs in a more casual way. You can have more space at a dog park,” she says.
Ms Okamoto is a qualified pet nutritionist and pet care advisor. Apart from consultations for nutrition for different stages of the pets’ lives, she does customised menu for dogs with special dietary requirements.
“We have sick dogs such as those suffering from cancer and the owners were told to put it down by the vet. They come to us as a last resort to improve the pet's quality of life and, hoping to add some time to their life. We have dogs with kidney problems, allergies and puppies with an upset stomach and so on,” Ms Okamoto says.
Known as “doggie aunty” among her clientele, she says it needs special multi-tasking skills to attend to multiple pooches, including some unfamiliar first-comers, and keeping them happy and full at the same time making sure there are no fights during meals.
Having turned her passion into her profession, Ms Okamoto says she's not hanging her apron any time soon.
“My dream of having a business where I could spend time with dogs has come true. I’m so happy to be able to establish a business where I'm improving their health. I’ll definitely keep working into my 60s and 70s as long as my body functions. I can’t quit."