I spent the better part of a week in Japan during December, holding meetings with clients, and looking at the current restaurant landscape.  Here are some thoughts from the visit.

The economy is getting better but the effects of deflation are still very evident.

Salaried workers are still looking to eat lunch for Yen 500 or less.  The convenience stores are raising their game with better quality food and winning a larger share of the business fast food outlets typically would expect.  HIgh carb low-priced udon is still big with brands such as Marugame Seimen and Hanamaru Udon.  One coin standing Yen 500 pizza with bar concepts are growing rapidly.  The pizza is fire-baked with limited toppings but much better than Pizza Hut or Domino’s.

Foodies are flocking to stand up eateries with high quality chef driven offerings at affordable prices.

The Oreno chain is doing brisk business.  Oreno is a take-off of “Ore” and “No” which is slang for “your” in Japanese. The concept is quite simple but effective. Offer chef-driven cuisine at very affordable prices with alcohol but limited to no seating.  There are now seven different concepts featuring Italian, French and Japanese. Most customers stand up and eat the food while leaning on the bar or the wall. The food is very high quality. I went to one of the Japanese concepts off the Ginza and loved the dishes.  Fugu (blowfish) sashimi was only Yen 1500.  Two of us had a great meal for Yen 3000 per person including some beers.  Not a place to take a date but a good place to get a delicious fine dining meal at a very reasonable price with a one hour time horizon.  I had memories of Italian bars in Milano with everyone standing around having wine and helping themselves to the free munchies.  www.oreno.co.jp

Oreno Japanese

Japanese love to stand in line to try new hot concepts.  Some things never change!

I am always amazed at the curiosity of the Japanese consumer when it comes to new concepts.  They wait in line for hours to try very ordinary things and then the boom dies off in one year or less.  The current boom is focused on popcorn, chocolate bars and all day breakfast.

Here are the lines for  the Kukuzura popcorn and Max Brenner chocolate concepts.

Kukuruza Popcorn

Line for Kukuruza

Max Brenner

Line for Max Brenner

McDonald’s is really struggling! 

McDonald’s did quite well the past few years with some hit products, but you cannot hit home runs forever.  The new leadership from overseas is trying to find their footing.  I stopped in for breakfast one morning and the operations are light years ahead of what you can find in Hong Kong or anywhere else in Asia. Given time they will get back on track!

It is always a pleasure to visit Japan.  Tokyo is still exciting and the culinary world is amazing as always.  I hope the Japanese consumer opens up their wallets a bit because of Abenomics to enjoy some of the best food Japan has to offer instead of being focused on what is cheap!

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