Annals of cheap: Gyoza no Osho
Only a handful of businesses have managed to actually increase sales during the current economic downturn. Two are no-brainers: fast-food Leviathan McDonald’s and cheapo clothing retailer Uniqlo. Less generally known is the fact that the restaurant chain, Gyoza no Osho, has enjoyed 74 consecutive months of sales growth. Revenues for the quarter ending in June were ¥15.5 billion, which is 23 percent more than sales for the same quarter in 2008. Some months have even seen a 100 percent increase in revenues over the previous year.
As the name indicates, Osho’s specialty is gyoza (pot sticker), but it’s more of a general purpose Chinese food chain than a restaurant that pushes ramen — which is prominent on the menu, but stir fry seems to be more their bag. The first Osho opened in Kyoto in 1967, and now there are 533 outlets nationwide, though almost none in northern Japan, which doesn’t seem that interested in Chinese food.
Osho’s sales point is its open kitchen policy. Unlike family restaurants, the work area is visible, so that the customers can see their food being made. Also there are no pre-processed meals in frozen containers or retort pouches. Though the gyoza filling and wrappers are made at a factory, the pot stickers (¥231 for six in eastern Japan, slightly less in western Japan) themselves are made in the individual restaurants. “Handmade” is the operative concept.
The atmosphere falls somewhere between an izakaya and a low-priced family-run Chinese restaurant, a mood that’s retained by the individual managers, who are free to offer their own specials, thus making each restaurant more of a neighborhood fixture than one more link in an undifferentiated chain of stores. A recent Saturday night visit to the Osho in Nishi Nippori revealed a line of people trailing out the door waiting for seats, about half of which were taken up by men, either alone or in groups, drinking round after round of beer or shochu-mixes. The food was basically treated as tsumami (snacks). So if Osho is considered cheap as a restaurant, it obviously makes a good deal of its profit through alcohol sales, which is priced about the same as it would be in an izakaya — ¥460 for a large mug of draft and ¥480 for a large bottle of beer (Asahi Dry). Not surprisingly, smoking is allowed throughout the restaurant, or, at least, it has been in the branches I’ve patronized.
And the chain’s success has created a kind of spiral effect. Financial magazines and business-oriented TV shows have covered the chain’s phenomenal good fortune extensively, thus giving Osho invaluable free promotion that’s only made it even more popular during these lean times. Rumor has it that this spiral began in July 2007 when the comedy duo Ameagari discussed their love of Osho on their late-night talk show. The following day, the chain’s Web site was swamped and ever since then the restaurants have been packed. Actually, late-night TV and cheap (but good) Chinese food seems like a perfect match.