As the cooler autumn weather approaches, more consumers start craving barbecued beef, referred to as yakiniku. Typically this consists of thin slices of marinated beef, cooked at the table over a gas burner or charcoal.
Even when not labeled as such, the cuisine boasts a strong Korean influence, although the difference from down-home Korean cuisine probably warrants the versions served in Japan to be described as a hybrid, the same way Tex-Mex in the U.S. evolved from Mexican food.
Before the COVID pandemic these restaurants, popular for tasty meals and good value for money, were thriving. But due to the soaring cost of beef as well as inflation in general, reports Nikkan Gendai (Sept 9), yakiniku restaurants have been going bust one after the next. According to the Teikoku Data Bank, up to the end of August 2023, 16 yakiniku chains had filed for bankruptcy, a figure three times the same period in 2022.
It was around August 2020 -- early in the COVID pandemic -- that that yakiniku restaurants came up with their own unique method of avoiding the 3 Cs (closed spaces, crowded places and close contact), thanks to smoke exhaust ducts positioned over each table. Some shops even increased their patronage by promoting "solitary yakiniku," minimizing contacts by encouraging patrons to come and dine alone.
Other restaurant chains, starting with the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs), jumped on the bandwagon and diversified into yakiniku.
Unfortunately as we know well, the value of the Japanese yen over the past few years has taken a nosedive against other currencies, considerably raising the prices for imported beef. Concurrently, rates for electricity and gas also rose and in addition to this came higher labor costs.
As if this weren't enough, entry of major national chains into the field had the effect of initiating a price war.
"Starting around the time of successive entries into the yakiniku business by major chains like Watami, I foresaw the failure of some restaurants," opined veteran food industry journalist Yoshihei Nakamura. "There are quite a few chains like Gyukaku, Jojoen, King and others, and of course there are lots of independent restaurants. People in the trade understand that their entry has led to overcompetition.
"At a glance it would appear that the individual restaurants can sink or swim on their own merits, but it's not that simple," Nakamura continued. "Slicing the cuts of meat properly is difficult. Even if you leave the cutting work to a wholesaler, there's the matter of producing a tasty marinade, which is also difficult. Watami, for example, put a lot of effort into research on how to get things right.
"The fact is, amateurish preparation won't bring back repeat customers. It's also become increasingly difficult to secure a stable supply of good-quality meat at reasonable costs ."
Many established purveyors of yakiniku are the scarred survivors of the mad cow disease scare from around 2001, and competing against these weathered warriors is tough enough to begin with.
In any event, in Japan's food and beverage industry there's never an end to boom and bust stories. In recent years one can point to such examples as the tapioca "bubble tea" boom, the fried chicken boom, the premium bread boom and others.
"Booms in foods tend to last for from three to five years," the aforementioned Nakamura tells Nikkan Gendai. "To generate profits, it's necessary for an entrant to get into the business when a boom is still at its early stage."
So then, what new food items will become popular in the future? That remains to be seen. However, due to demand from inbound tourists, restaurants serving so-called izakaya-zushi, which varies from conveyor-belt sushi, may start to become popular.
"Right now, skilled sushi chefs are in short supply," Nakamura points out.© Japan Today