From longer hours to all-you-can drink offers, Japan’s restaurants evolve in battle for customers


Staff Writer

Change is in the air — you can smell it.

Whether it’s hamburger joints offering all-you-can-drink glasses of wine, kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi spots luring female customers with daytime cakes and coffee, or izakaya (dining bars) operating 24/7 for customers working the night shift, the nation’s restaurant industry is undoubtedly in flux.

As an already packed market swells with new players and as the population shrinks, eateries are increasingly mounting sorties from their traditional strongholds in search of a larger piece of the pie.

In January 2015, four Freshness Burger restaurants, whose menus include spam and omelet sandwiches and freshly squeezed fruit juices, debuted a temporary menu dubbed Furebaru — a contraction of “Freshness Bar” — offering tempting deals of alcohol and gourmet ham.

“We’ve always styled our outlets as a fast food restaurant that serves beer, a cafe where adults can relax,” said Mika Aoki, spokeswoman for Freshness Co., the operator of the chain.

“But we felt customers weren’t aware of this, so we thought to emphasize that aspect. And when we looked around for a hook, we came up with the idea of all-you-can-drink wine and (all-you-can-eat) dry-cured ham.”

From 5 p.m. until close, customers who order alcoholic beverages are treated to unlimited servings of dry-cured ham over a one-hour period for an additional cost of ¥500. Under the same time limit, all-you-can-drink red or white wine is available for ¥980. A la carte items are also available, as well as other alcoholic beverages, mostly priced under ¥500.

Meanwhile, an izakaya dining bar chain has adopted a radical approach to market share expansion: outlets that offer alcohol around the clock, every day of the week.

Restaurants of the Isomaru Suisan chain are known for their brightly lit facades and interiors that recall a rustic eatery in a fish market. The menu centers on fresh barbecued seafood.

The approach of serving alcohol around the clock resulted, perhaps not surprisingly, from customer demand, according to operator SFP Dining Co.

“We closed our doors at 5 a.m. at first, but soon realized there were many patrons still drinking and eating at that time,” said Akihiro Kimura, head of the Isomaru Suisan division.

Many of the wee-hours patrons have just finished a night shift at work, and outlets in the Tokyo nightspots of Roppongi and Shinjuku are especially popular, Kimura said.

“We thought there must be many people who work night shifts, and that such people might stop by to eat when they finish, just like daytime workers, so we said, ‘What if we extend our hours?’ and it turned out to be a hit,” he said.

Freshness Burger and Isomaru Suisan are just two examples of restaurant industry players experimenting with new tricks outside their repertoires to woo new kinds of customers. As the population shrinks, fewer people are eating out, said Masahiro Inagaki, who heads Recruit Holdings Co.’s Hot Pepper Gourmet Research Center.

Saturation of the overall restaurant market may not be obvious, he said, but “people eat only three times a day,” which means a smaller population will hurt restaurant revenues in the long term.

At the same time, changes in eating habits are creating fresh opportunities for restaurants.

“Women in large cities, for example, now tend to eat out more often because more of them work,” Inagaki said.

The trend is also reflected in the success of Freshness Burger’s Furebaru, which mainly targets women.

The success of Furebaru led the company to introduce the menu at more Freshness Burger locations. Currently 60 of 160 Freshness Burger outlets nationwide offer it, according to Aoki.

Catering to drinkers seems to be a common theme for fast food restaurants.

Yoshinoya Co., which established gyudon (beef bowl) dishes as a staple of Japanese fast food in the 1970s, has launched a Yoshinomi menu which features alcohol and a la carte menu items at less than ¥500 to lure customers away from izakaya.

Kaiten sushi restaurants, which feature a moving parade of low-price sushi dishes, are trying to fill their seats in the hours between lunch and dinner, when customer numbers decline steeply.

“Housewives and high school girls are our key customers in these hours,” said Yasuko Yamada, spokeswoman for Akindo Sushiro Co., which operates over 400 Sushiro outlets nationwide.

“They come to our restaurants for lunch as well as afternoon gatherings with friends, so we offer coffee, sweets and French fries” in addition to sushi.

Sushiro is also targeting company employees after work by offering beer and a la carte items at reasonable prices, an approach that is common among kaiten sushi chains, which have eaten into izakayas’ turf in part because they don’t levy the unpopular otoshi table charges. The result has been a turf war between them, Inagaki said.

“Some companies that have mainly operated izakaya are now opening outlets in the outskirts of cities to target customers of family restaurants,” he said.

“Family restaurants, including kaiten sushi, have traditionally opened large outlets in residential areas or along artery roads on the periphery, but they have exhausted viable locations,” said Inagaki.

“With fewer people driving these days, especially in large cities, they are increasingly targeting locations near stations and in shopping malls. So they’re trying to lure customers other than families.”