Good, cheap, and fast” – these are the familiar catchphrases of Yoshinoya. When the FRIDAY reporter visited Yoshinoya around 12:00 p.m. on a weekday, the restaurant was packed with businessmen and students on their lunch break. The restaurant now offers a variety of dishes, including karaage donburi (deep-fried chicken bowl) and mugitoro donburi (beef with grated yam), but the most popular dish is the beef donburi (regular), which combines juicy beef with a sauce that is rich in white wine and never gets old.
Within two minutes of placing an order, the dish is served hot, and the customers sitting at the counter are shoveling down their orders with unceasing enthusiasm. It takes only about 10 minutes. It is not difficult to imagine how attractive this beef bowl is during lunch time, when every minute counts.
One of the most noticeable changes at Yoshinoya, a restaurant that has kept its loyal customers coming back for more with its consistently delicious food, is the price. The reason behind this is the soaring purchase price of beef due to the high price of crude oil and the weak yen. The impact of this phenomenon, also known as “meat shock,” is spreading to the so-called “top three,” Matsuya and Sukiya, which are vying for supremacy with Yoshinoya. The price of a regular dish at both companies was 280 yen 10 years ago, the same as Yoshinoya’s, but now it is 400 yen.
The challenge for the two latecomers in their early days was how to differentiate themselves from Yoshinoya. Matsuya used set menus and grill menus, while Sukiya created its own originality with “variant beef bowls” loaded with unique toppings.
However, this is now becoming the norm, and Yoshinoya has also broken away from its beef donburi monopoly to offer a wide variety of dishes such as curry and set menus. In the past, each of the three companies had its own individuality, but now they have become very similar,” said Mitsuhiko Suda, a restaurant consultant.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, each of the three major players has tried to find a new way out of the situation, but it has not always been successful. Yoshinoya, in an attempt to capture nighttime demand, a weak point for the beef bowl chain, began serving “Yoshinomi,” which combines a beef dish with alcohol, in ’14. ……
The appeal of the menu was not as strong as it could have been because there was not enough variation in the menu items that went well with the beer. Also, customers stay longer and the turnover rate, which is the key to a beef bowl chain, goes down. It was a failure as a project, although we ended up withdrawing from the market due to Corona.
The company is also actively developing menu items using ingredients other than beef, the price of which continues to soar.
We are making karaage donburi (fried chicken bowl) and yakitori donburi (grilled chicken bowl) using chicken, which is inexpensive to purchase. One such dish was the oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl), which was developed over a period of 10 years under the direction of upper management. However, the company withdrew the product, probably because it coincided with the former managing director’s inappropriate comment that the company was using the “shabu-zuke” strategy for its fresh daughters,” said food journalist Junnosuke Nagahama.
Three companies accelerate overseas expansion
Matsuya will increase the number of stores that include “Maikary Shokudo” (curry restaurant) and “Matsunoya” (pork cutlet and pork cutlet bowl restaurant), which are separate businesses operated by Matsuya Foods Holdings, and will confront the “meat shock” with its comprehensive strength.
Zensho Holdings, which operates Sukiya, also operates Nakau, which is strong in oyakodon. The company has monopolized the oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl) market, almost dominating the market, while taking advantage of the loss of Yoshinoya. Sukiya also differentiates itself from the other two companies by offering “seafood.
Sukiya is the only company that offers seafood on its regular menu. For an extra 300 yen, you can double the amount of tuna head and get a large bowl of rice. The Zensho Group also operates “Hama Sushi” and is fully demonstrating its strengths. There is also a wide range of healthy options, such as the Gyu-don Lite (regular, 500 yen), which features beef on tofu or salad instead of rice,” says B-class gourmet explorer Yagyu Kyubei.
Together with Nakau, Sukiya is the closest to being the leader in the current market.
However, it is also true that neither of these strategies has been enough of a catalyst to break out of the dango-status that Sukiya finds itself in.
“From now on, rather than expanding domestic demand, Sukiya will probably move more aggressively overseas,” says Mr. Kurokawa. It seems that the three companies will open more and more restaurants not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Southeast Asia, where the American culture continues to grow economically.
In the age of tendon and katsudon!
While the three giants are nipping at each other’s heels, tendon and katsudon are expanding rapidly in Japan. In particular, Tendon Tenya (146 outlets nationwide) and Katsuya (from 300 outlets to 450 outlets in ’15) have gained tremendous momentum. Food analyst Takao Shigemori explains.
Katsuya deep-fries the cutlets after they are ordered and then dips them in egg, so you can enjoy hot, crispy cutlets. Tenya also deep-fries the cutlets after ordering, and you can hear the sound of the sauce being poured over the cutlets from the counter. Gyudon (beef bowl) can be served similarly in a retort, but it is difficult to make fried food at home. Katsuya’s katsudon (plum) costs 594 yen, and they give you a 100 yen discount coupon after one serving. Tenya’s ten-don (regular) is 560 yen with shrimp and kisses. It is certainly priced a little higher than a beef bowl, but it is worth it.
Katsuya is also attracting industry attention for its high profit margin.
The recurring profit margin is approximately 12%, which is one of the highest among publicly listed restaurant companies. Normally, a restaurant would barely make 5%, so you can see how impressive this is. Menu portions are also set in detail. All meat is cut in fixed quantities at a factory, and is simply battered and deep-fried at the restaurant. By focusing on pork cutlets, we are able to operate efficiently,” says Suda.
Tenya is in great demand from the elderly and inbound customers.
Foreign tourists who have eaten tendon priced at over 5,000 yen in Asakusa are impressed by Tenya’s tendon, which can be enjoyed for about one-tenth of that price, and keep coming back. Tenya is also strong with first-time customers, as evidenced by an irregular campaign that offers an extra prawn tempura when you register as a friend on LINE” (Shigemori, above).
Arkland Service, the operator of Katsuya, has also taken notice of tendon and opened Tendon Hamada in 2007. Although there are only six stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area, the company aims to differentiate itself from Tenya and expand its business by setting slightly higher prices.
When the FRIDAY reporter visited a Hamada restaurant, he was greeted by a deep white wooden counter and an open kitchen where he could watch the cooking process. The restaurant’s interior, fragrant with sesame oil, resembled a high-class restaurant. The Edomae-tendon (tempura bowl) I ordered (1,760 yen), which included a large conger eel and shrimp head, was much more satisfying than the more expensive tendon at a Japanese-style family restaurant.
Recently, there has been an increase in demand for bowls of rice that are not only fast and inexpensive, but also delicious, even if you have to pay for it. Yoshinoya’s beef bowl (1,527 yen) made with Japanese black beef at its restaurants in the Diet Building and Haneda Airport is a reflection of this trend,” said Nagahama.
Will they capture the stomachs of the common people, or will they turn the corner to petit luxury? The “rice bowl war,” which is intensifying, is entering its next stage.
From the August 4, 2023 issue of FRIDAY
PHOTO： AFLO (Sukiya)