Kaiten-zushi chains gird for battle

January 29th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

In a recent article in a regional Australian newspaper, an expat Japanese sushi chef complained that sushi chefs Down Under were getting a bit carried away with the mayo, not to mention the avocado, claiming that overuse of these two non-Japanese ingredients spoiled the sushi-eating experience. He added that in Japan, they don’t use as much.

Don't hold the mayo: Kappa Sushi

Obviously, he hasn’t been to a kaiten-zushi restaurant in his native country lately. Kaiten sushi are the fast-food dispensers of Japan’s most distinctive cuisine, where sushi is churned out by human and/or automated means and placed on conveyor belts that pass in front of patrons who just pick them up. After they’re finished, an employee counts the dishes and adds up the bill. The incorporation of mass-production methods means kaiten-zushi establishments can cater to families with young children, a demographic that traditionally was not welcome at sushi bars, where the dynamic is more personal: You deal directly with a chef who stands in front of you and makes dishes to your order. As kaiten chains became more widespread and more cost efficient, the variety of dishes expanded to satisfy newer or younger tastes; which is why what they now serve will likely offend the finer sensibilities, not to mention the pride, of traditional sushi chefs. Not only are mayonnaise and avocado regular ingredients at kaiten chains (and, contrary to what the gentleman in Cairns claims, slathered on quite liberally), but they also offer salads, Western-style desserts, and, making the fast-food analogy complete, hamburger and hot dog sushi.

Three kaiten sushi chains have managed to bring their prices down to ¥100 per plate, which, except for high-end product like chu-toro (fatty tuna) and awabi (abalone), includes two pieces of sushi (i.e., a ball of vinegared rice, or shari, with a raw or slightly cooked fish topping, called neta). Not surprisingly, these three — Kappa Sushi, Akindo Sushiro and Kura Sushi — dominate the market, but the real competition seems to be between the top two. Though Kappa is the biggest chain by far with 377 stores nationwide, Sushiro, with 295 outlets, made more money during the second half of 2010: ¥46.2 billion (20 percent more than the previous year) to Kappa’s ¥45.5 billion (9 percent increase).

In a bid to win back the top spot, Kappa broke the magic ¥100 barrier by offering all plates except for desserts, soups and o-tsumami (side dishes, like edamame — boiled soy beans — and fried chicken) for ¥90 all-day Mondays through Fridays, and advertised the deal with a series of charmingly cheap-looking TV commercials. However, Sushiro’s ascension was a more carefully calculated success and one that may be difficult to top by price-slashing. Sushiro’s president, Kenichi Toyozaki, is a real sushi chef. He even does the demonstrations himself in the training videos for the chain’s sushi chefs. Even more than a master of fish, he’s a master of public relations. Whenever there’s a fisheries-related issue in the news, such as the shortage of blue fin tuna, he welcomes questions from reporters who want to find out how such an issue will affect Japanese eating habits. Regardless of how self-serving his answers may be, the resulting publicity has lifted Sushiro’s reputation above that of the competition. It is thought of as a company that values the “goodness of the materials” (sozai no yosa).

Obviously, volume is important if you want to sell sushi for ¥100 a plate, and generally speaking these chains lose money on their most popular item: tuna. According to the consumer variety show “Gatchiri Academy,” four of the five most popular sushi dishes in Japan are derived from maguro (tuna), which means they have to make up the profits elsewhere — thus the mayo and avocado, which effectively add volume to cheaper salmon and shrimp toppings. (For the record, shrimp-avocado-mayo is the 8th most popular kaiten sushi dish.)

Sushiro’s strategy may preclude the kind of price war that currently besets the beef bowl (gyudon) restaurant industry. Kappa’s cost-cutting strategy was obviously carried out to regain the No. 1 position, but since it was only for a limited time, it may not be something the company can afford to do permanently. As it stands, both gyudon and kaiten sushi chains, which used to cater to salarymen almost exclusively, are now after the same customer base, families, which they’ve successfully wrested from family restaurants, the only eateries where, 10 years ago, you could take the kids and not attract withering stares from the other customers who wanted to eat in peace.

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3 Responses

  1. I feel that the modern idea that certain (former) luxury items–o-toro maguro, the $49 cashmere sweaters at Costco–should be put within reach of the average consumer is a fallacy of our consumption-driven society. The popularity of those cashmere sweaters has contributed to severe desertification in Western China (the dust from which, ironically, reaches all the way to Costco’s corporate home in Washington State), just as the still-growing popularity of inexpensive kaiten sushi (which can now be found well beyond Japan’s borders) has contributed to rampant over-fishing of certain species that were once protected by their relative rarity on the market. Eventually, of course, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and we’ll once again find the selection of 100 yen sushi limited to octopus, squid, tekka and tamago.

  2. I like reading your stuff, Philip.

  3. Of course kaiten-zushi chains can sell their sushi for such cheap prices because they often substitute. Alas, Japanese people can’t taste the difference.

    For example, the squid is often a deep sea variety that must be processed in factories in Thailand or China to remove the ammonia taste. The expensive fish with white flesh such as sea bream or flounder are in reality fresh water species such as large mouth bass or nile perch. The eggs for tamago sushi generally just processed yolks left over from cake factories.

    Negi-toro is just kihada or binnaga tuna (the smallest species usually used for canned tuna) with salad oil added to make it seem fatty.

    Most tuna they use is bought from special brokers who buy up tuna that was mishandled. A common technique to keep prices low is buying tuna with black meat because of improper freezing and exposure to air. A special chemical process is used to first bleach that black meat white and then a bright red dye is added.

    There are several books and magazine articles in Japanese examining the dark side of why kaiten-zushi is so cheap.

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