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Fast Food Rush in Japan

Akiko Okamoto

Founders of fast-food chains overseas are setting their sights on Japan. They say weak spending by consumers is no obstacle to their ambitions.

One of America's best-known fast-food chains recently launched its 2nd outpost in Tokyo. Taco Bell serves quick and cheap Mexican cuisine and its menu includes dishes such as burritos and tacos. The items are popular in the US, but unfamiliar to many in Japan.

It is not the first time Taco Bell has launched in Japan. Stores opened in the 1980s, but they struggled to market their offerings and shut up shop. Things are different this time as social media helps push the brand.

The company has returned at a time when an influx of foreign visitors is helping to globalize Japan's fast food industry. It has a new strategy: offering office workers breakfast dishes with ingredients, such as sausages and bacon, that are already popular among Japanese diners.

"I rarely eat Mexican food, but the burrito has scrambled eggs inside, something I eat all the time. So it's a good breakfast meal," says one morning diner.

A senior Taco Bell executive describes Japan as a crucial market. "Japan has such a huge power, influence to others, especially other Asian markets," says JT Jin, Asia Pacific general manager, Taco Bell Restaurants Asia. "The trend is coming from there, the new way of eating, and foods are delicious...transcending to other industry as well."

Other fast-food companies from the US, Australia and Taiwan have launched in Japan this year. American burger chain Shake Shack opened its first Asian location in Tokyo last month, not far from the slated site for the 2020 Olympic stadium.

Shake Shack's burgers contain beef free of hormones and antibiotics and in Japan, the price starts at about $5.50. "It's organic, healthy, and delicious. And on top of that, I think it's reasonably priced," says one customer.

Shake Shack Tokyo has plenty of outdoor seating, just like the original burger stand in New York City. In 2004 the founders opened the flagship store in Madison Square Park. They say one of their strategies is to serve high-quality food in picturesque settings.

The firm believes its business will prosper in Japan, just as it continued to grow in the US even after the financial crisis. "We helped redefine what traditional fast food used to be," says Shake Shack's CEO Randy Garutti. "It's when a new place with quality, fun but still approachable pricing. And I think that's what made it so special. I think that's good in any economy."

With so many restaurants popping up, the race is on to capture the hearts and tastebuds of Japan's consumers.

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