What’s the same: that iconic bell sign, friendly and casual staff, and a range of crunchy and soft tacos and burritos.
What’s different: a real live yuru-kyara mascot greeting customers, a couple of localized dishes, and prices double or triple those in the United States.
U.S. fast food chain Taco Bell Corp. made a much-hyped re-entry into the Japanese market on Tuesday, opening a store in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward through Asrapport Dining Co., a Japanese operator of restaurant franchises.
The U.S. restaurant chain, known for its Mexican-inspired menu, operated restaurants in Japan in the late 1980s but later pulled out, with the exception of outlets at U.S. military bases, which remained.
On Tuesday morning, Taco Bell aficionados were out in force, lining up before the doors opened. At 10 a.m., as bells rang, an English-speaking staffer and the mascot, named Taco Man, led customers in one by one.
“We came here because we wanted to be the first,” said California native Jason Stillwell, a 37-year-old English teacher from Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. He arrived at the store at 7:30 a.m. to be among the first 100 patrons to get a free taco and a T-shirt.
“I have a friend who’s a Taco Bell manager back home. So I emailed her and said ‘We have a Taco Bell in Japan too!’ ”
The chain’s foray into Japan comes at a time when a handful of U.S. dining chains, including Carl’s Jr. and Shake Shack, are planning to enter the Japanese market, aiming to attract not just domestic customers but also increasing numbers of foreign visitors ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Melissa Lora, president of Taco Bell International, is optimistic that the firm’s second crack at the nation’s ¥24 trillion restaurant market will succeed, stressing the market environment is better than in the late 1980s.
“The world has changed,” Lora said. “Back then, no one took pictures of the food. With social media and all the focus on new, interesting foods that are in the world today, we feel now is the perfect time to come into Japan.”
Keiko Takasaki, 29, who came with a friend, was among many customers who learned of the store’s opening through Facebook.
“I enjoyed Taco Bell in California, where I used to live,” she said. She was looking forward to Japan-only dishes such as shrimp avocado burrito and taco rice.
Unfortunately, prices will also be Japanese-style: Most dishes cost ¥500 or ¥600, with the cheapest taco on the menu — a beef crunchy taco — priced at ¥270.
Asrapport Dining official Mike Morizumi said the higher prices were inevitable due to the yen’s rapid depreciation over the past two years and because the restaurant chain sees little benefit from economies of scale in Japan at the moment, with just one location. The firm aims to open 15 outlets nationwide within five years, he said.
Some customers said the prices might be too stiff.
“Taco Bell in America is famous for cheap tacos,” Stillwell said. “If they cost ¥200 or ¥300, it would be (the same as) a regular restaurant.”