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JR Tokai enlists chicken in second ‘ekiben’ foray

Chunichi Shimbun

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) is once again taking on the challenge of breaking into the formidable Nagoya-meshi sector, where dishes popular in or unique to the city command a loyal following in the coveted “ekiben” (train station boxed lunch).

JR Tokai’s strategy this time is nearly the same: to target health-conscious travelers with a low-calorie station “bento” packed with vegetables this fall. This time around, however, the meals will be augmented by chicken.

The railway hopes this change will prevent its fare from being clobbered again by the high-calorie ekiben offered by its competitors, including “miso katsu” (pork cutlet with miso sauce). The popularity of the heavier meals forced JR Tokai out of the market.

But JR Tokai still believes health consciousness is deeply rooted among consumers and hopes to take revenge by launching new fare still focused on vegetables but featuring chicken to make them more filling.

In the store in Tokaido Shinkansen Line station one recent day, more than 30 varieties of boxed meals were lining its shelves, including the Yasai Tappuri Bento (Boxed Meal Full of Vegetables) that JR Tokai unit JR Central Passengers Co. began selling in October for ¥1,000.

With only 522 kcal, it contains a mix of white and black rice, boiled and sauteed vegetables and chicken teriyaki. The firm hopes the newly added meat will create a meal that is both satisfying and healthy at the same time.

“I think there should be healthy boxed meals that pay attention to the consumer’s health,” said a 66-year-old businessman who picked up one of the new items before heading off to Shin-Osaka Station on business.

In March 2007, JR Central Passengers released the new meals’ predecessor, the Yasai Tappuri Makunouchi (‘Inside the Curtains’ Boxed Meal Full of Vegetables) at six major stations where bullet trains stop, including Nagoya, Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.

Nagoya Station was the only one where sales slumped. Only about 50 of the lunches were sold each day — a quarter of the ekiben sales tallied in Tokyo.

The meal was dropped in March.

One of the main obstacles was the Nagoya Miso Katsu Bento (¥850), which decimated Yasai Tappuri sales in combination with other high-calorie ekiben also based on local cuisine.

In rankings of the 10 most popular boxed meals in each station, only one locally made bento made Tokyo Station’s list. But Osaka Station had three and Nagoya Station six.

Hiroshi Shigeta, the administrative manager of JR Central Passengers, listed the conservative nature of Nagoya consumers as one of the main reasons for the lack of success.

“The customers are used to eating these foods. I think it’s also because many local businesspeople want to take proper nutrition before heading off for business trips,” he said about the strength of local bento.

However, making sure healthy ekiben gain a firm footing in the industry is essential to attracting other types of customers, such as women and seniors, who are more concerned about health.

With that in mind, this time the JR Tokai group launched two more ekiben — the Over 30 Items Bento (598 kcal) at ¥880 and the 400 Kcal Bento (423 kcal) for ¥700.

Combined sales for all three new ekiben are averaging about 280 a day.

That’s about 40 boxes more than sold on average each day in Shin-Osaka Station, and about half the average in Tokyo.

“Thanks to the health consciousness of consumers, the response has been better than expected,” Shigeta said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 27.