The Taco Bell is ringing, but will Tokyo come to the party?


Special To The Japan Times

It’s 8 a.m. on an overcast Tuesday and a line of people are queuing along a cramped street in Shibuya’s Dogenzaka area.

“You’ve been here since 5 a.m.?!,” Shivram Vaideeswaran says while speaking to two people near the head of the line.

These fast-food devotees are lining up for the grand opening of Tokyo’s first Taco Bell — the fast-food chain from California that serves Mexican-inspired food.

In the U.S., Taco Bell is a fixture of the banal drive-thru landscape. Yet in Tokyo, a city where Mexican food is scarce, the franchise’s arrival has attracted a crowd willing to queue for hours on a weekday morning.

“Love the shirts,” Vaideeswaran — the global marketing director for Taco Bell Corp. — says to two Japanese men in the queue sporting Taco Bell t-shirts. An hour later , Vaideeswaran is passing out free tacos to the more than 150 people waiting for the doors to open.

But Taco Bell isn’t the only name entering the market in Tokyo: a Mexican (or rather, U.S., Japanese and Australian) wave of taco and burrito restaurants is currently hitting the city.

There’s UmUm Good Burritos near Tokyo Station, Taco Rico, which recently opened inside Roppongi’s Ark Hills complex, and Chiles in Harajuku is about to be challenged by Australia’s Guzman y Gomez chain, who are opening a store inside Laforet Harajuku on April 29.

Food trends in Japan’s capital are always fickle, but Mexican food might be on the cusp of becoming the next gourmet popcorn or pancake.

As intriguing as that sounds, it remains unclear which version of Mexican food the city’s residents will obsess over.

Taco Bell Japan aims at localizing its fast-food experience, but new arrivals with no pre-existing marketing leverage, such as Taco Rico, trumpet “authenticity” and hope to appeal to “taco lovers.”

Koji Moriyama, the owner and head chef at Hiroo’s long-running Mexican restaurant Salsita, doesn’t see the emergence of Taco Bell as a problem to Tokyo’s established Mexican restaurants as long as “they can promote Mexican food in Japan.”

“But I’m also afraid that they might spread a false image of Mexican food as easy fast food,” he writes in an email.

The recently opened Shibuya outpost isn’t Taco Bell’s first foray into Japan. It opened stores in the Nagoya area in 1988, but withdrew from the market in 1990, and since then Taco Bells could only be found on American military bases.

“So much has changed at Taco Bell and in Japan (since then),” Vaideeswaran says, speaking inside the shop a week before the grand opening, as local staff practice making the menu items under the guidance of an American team. “We are seeing much more understanding of what Mexican food is than in the past — we thought it was time to bring Taco Bell to Japan,” he says

For Vaideeswaran, “education” remains key to winning the locals over.

“We’ve made our restaurant incredibly transparent, you can see into the kitchen and see every order being made,” he says.

Customers can also customize each order by selecting their meat (beef, chicken, pork) and level of spice (mild, medium or hot).

The menu, too, has undergone changes to suit Japanese tastes. A taco rice dish and a shrimp-and-avocado burrito are exclusive to Japan.

“We did consumer research on a plate of nachos, and people (in Japan) thought they were messy,” he says. “Not every chip has the ingredients people want on top.” In response, Taco Bell Japan offers chips with the usual fixings — salsa, guacamole, etc. — on the side.

Regardless of how chains such as Taco Bell (or Guzman y Gomez) localize their menus, they also have name power to lean on — a huge edge in a market where foreign brands attract customers.

Noboru Kitajima, the president of Hapita, the company that runs Roppongi’s Taco Rico, appreciates the arrival of these chains “because they are making this a trend,” he says, adding that restaurants such as his, differ greatly from fast-food style Mexican food.

“I went to many stores in America and Mexico. I didn’t think many taco shops in Tokyo were very authentic,” he says.

Taco Rico, like Taco Bell, has focused on transparency and choice: customers watch as their taco or burrito is put together with the ingredients they’ve requested. They are also is trying to limit messiness by offering small paper cones to catch spillage.

“I developed this,” Kitajima says. “It makes it easier to handle a taco.”

Although Taco Bell and Taco Rico share similar challenges, they have differnt target audiences.

Vaideeswaran is after “the youth of Tokyo” — “though we are for anyone who is young of heart,” he adds.

Kitajima, meanwhile, is after the slightly older office workers inside Ark Hills along with taco lovers seeking out the best-possible iteration of the food.

“We want to open 20 (Taco Rico) restaurants by the 2020 Olympics,” Kitajima says. But to do that he needs to create buzz — something Taco Bell clearly has no problems doing.

Nearly every morning show on Japanese TV is now filming the queue and interviewing those in line, although they are skipping over those drinking cans of beer.

A slow clap develops a minute before the doors open at 10 a.m. and a taco mascot emerges to wave at the excited crowd.

The true test of Taco Bell’s staying power in Tokyo, though, will come once the media attention falls away, the mascot goes back in storage and the city’s Mexican food speaks for itself.