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The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: Yoshinoya


Its signature "beef bowl" has been a working class hero for 100 years.

Since its signature Beef Bowl first landed on American shores in 1979, Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain with 19th century working-class roots and 15,000 outlets worldwide, has pursued slow but steady growth in this country.

Eichi Matsuda first opened a gyudon (the Japanese name for a dish of sliced beef and onions served over rice with a dashi-based sauce) restaurant in 1899, in Tokyo's Nihonbashi fish market. From the beginning, fast turnaround (his workers were trained to start preparing a bowl the moment a customer entered the restaurant) and bulk beef purchases were key to his success.

Half a century later in 1946, his son Mizuho turned Yoshinoya into what some claim was Japan's first ever fast-food restaurant, adopting 24-hour service and opening new branches. In 1958, it officially became a corporate chain, never losing sight of its market position as a cheap and cheerful food outlet for low-income workers on the go. The average Japanese diner at Yoshinoya wolfs down a meal in 7.5 minutes.

In 2003, facing ongoing recession, a Mad Cow Disease-induced ban that temporarily cut off its supply of cheap American beef and stiff local competition from competitor chains Sukiya and Matsuya, Yoshinoya ramped up an American expansion drive, establishing Yoshinoya America as a holding company. By the early months of 2010, it had opened its 100th store in Walnut, California, with more to come.

As well, Yoshinoya is continuing to aggressively expand revenue returns in China, where one of its New Territories outlets reportedly sells the most gyudon of any of its outlets. It has been in the Chinese market since 1991, but its reliance on commissioning local firms to operate stores there has so far limited its profits from the country.

In the States, aside from a prominent Times Square location in New York City popular with tourists looking for a slightly healthier alternative to the area's usual burgers-and-pizza fare, Yoshinoya's sphere of operations has been mostly limited to the western states, concentrated in Nevada, Arizona and California. The company offers a varied menu that reflects a deliberate policy of offering, as its official website says, "a combination of two cultures. It's traditional Japanese cuisine, served in an American fast food environment." But both in the States and overseas Yoshinoya is best known as a place to eat sliced beef over rice. Eat any other item menu, its devotees warn, and you're missing the point.

There's considerable debate over how authentic the American Yoshinoya experience is– the NYC branch offers New England clam chowder, confusingly – as well as to the healthiness of the Beef Bowl. It's not deep-fried, but it's not a light snack either. A regular beef bowl delivers 840 calories, compared to a Big Mac's 540.

Back home in Japan, Yoshinoya is still locked in a brutal, recession-driven price-point war with Mastuya and Sukiya, increasing the corporation's desire to see growth in its US operations. If they can consolidate a market position as a relatively healthy, fresh alternative to most fast-food or food-court options, and balance their Japanese roots with American love of cheap beef and fear of foreign food, this country might yet be a bright spot for Yoshinoya America's pressured parent company.
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