The Canadian franchise “Made in Japan Teriyaki Experience” opened its first restaurant in Central America last month, on San José’s Paseo Colón, hoping to capitalize on the modern-day Tico’s crunch for time and appetite for Asian food.
The chain bills itself as “fast casual,” an attempt to distinguish itself from traditional fast food. The “fast” part is hard to get around — customers still order and pay at a cash register, stand in line to wait for their food and can be out in about half an hour.
But the difference from, say,McDonald’s, is that as they wait in line, they watch chefs grill their meals on the other side of the glass panel, cooking fresh veggies and meat in water rather than oil to cut fat and calories.
The “casual” part refers to the décor — dark wooden tables and photos of Japan replace plastic booths and Ronald McDonald.
On a recent lunch hour, businessmen and women queued to the door and chose from an illuminated menu overhead with photos of rice, yakisoba noodles, Pan-Asian noodles, wraps and salads, all made with their choice of “proteins,” including chicken, beef, shrimp and tofu.
They’ll pay ¢2,500 to ¢3,000 ($5-6) for their meals, more than the approximately ¢1,200 to ¢2,000 ($2.40 to $4.00) for lunch at a typical Costa Rica soda, but in line with the price of a meal at other fast food chains here.
Roberto Ramírez, who works in an office nearby and came on his lunch hour, said his fondness of Japanese food drew him to Teriyaki Experience.
“I’d never tried Japanese fast food, though. Seemed like it would be interesting,” he said.
The U.S. company QSR International LDC, which brought KFC and Quiznos to Costa Rica, is the master franchiser behind Teriyaki, meaning it has the rights to open franchises in the region, said Roy McCormick, QSR International franchise expansion and marketing consultant.
Its goal is to open six restaurants in Costa Rica by then end of 2008. The second store is under construction at Plaza Real Cariari.
Others are scheduled to follow at Multiplaza del Este, in the eastern suburb of Curridabat, and Multiplaza Escazú, across town in the west-side canton of Escazú, said Carolina Beeche, manager of marketing and sales.
More than $1 million has been secured for these first four restaurants, and the company is seeking investors for the remaining two.
“We have a very aggressive expansion plan,” Beeche said, explaining the company hopes to make Costa Rica its regional headquarters to provide sales training and support for future restaurants in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Suriname, Aruba, Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Gran Cayman and the Bahamas.
The company is also on the lookout for franchisers in these countries.
Teriyaki Experience got its start at Promenade Mall in Toronto, Canada in 1986 and has since expanded to 128 restaurants in Bahrain, Egypt, Italy, Kuwait, the Netherlands Antilles, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Canada.
Back at the restaurant on Paseo Colón, father and daughter Gustavo and Alejandra Cetrad were sharing lunch. It was her idea.
The 22-year-old nutritionist and fan of Japanese food said she was not convinced about the restaurant’s claims of healthy cuisine and found the information on the menu incomplete.
To top rice and noodle dishes, one chooses from a list of “proteins,”but the menu doesn’t point out the other food groups. A pamphlet with the nutritional breakdown of each meal is available.
Still, Alejandra said she “likes the idea of educating people to eat well and not just hamburgers,” as she dove into her plate of noodles and chicken.
Her 56-year-old father hinted he may have preferred a casado over his yakisoba.
“My first impression,” he said, “is that this is evidence of modern life in Costa Rica, where everything is moving too fast.”