While hamburger chains like McDonald’s Japan may be forever shaving yen off their prices and launching campaigns like free hamburgers and coffee, stores like Yoshinoya and Sukiya, home of the original Japanese fast food, gyūdon, are about to become a little more expensive.

The stores, which have been locked in fierce price wars for years, have, until recently, hoped to attract customers by offering rock-bottom prices and seasonal offers, but are beginning to feel the strain.

Is the businessman’s staple dish about to get a dash of sophistication? Or will the same-old beef bowl simply receive a bigger price tag?

Gyūdon (lit. beef bowls) are a firm favourite among those on a tight budget or who only have time for a quick bite, and have been around in Japan since as long ago as the late 19th century.

Thin strips of beef are slow cooked in a slightly sweet broth with sliced onion and soy sauce, then placed on top of a steaming bowl of fluffy white Japanese rice. It’s immensely filling, more-ish and, while hardly the healthiest of meals, better than flling up on a pile of heavily-salted, deep-fried potato.

Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Matsuya, the three big don-buri (literally “bowl”) chains, have continually lowered the price of their standard gyūdon dishes, with the cheapest being Matsuya’s 240 yen (US$3), in an effort to lure customers away from rivals and boost sales.

But cheap, it would seem, is not always best.

Reported by Yahoo! Japan News earlier this week, the three gyūdon giants have begun adding more and more expensive dishes to their menus, and putting an end to the seasonal discount campaigns that they have become so well known for. In place of ads on trains and TV commercials for larger, cheaper portions, the big three have chosen to introduce original dishes, each with a considerably higher asking price.

While the traditional gyūdon remains on its menu, a quick glance at Yoshinoya’s latest menu reveals the arrival of fancy new dishes like Gyū yaki-niku don (Korean barbecue-style beef bowl) and Negi shio buta don (salted pork with spring onion), which cost noticably more than the current staple.

▼Yoshinoya’s newest arrival, Gyū yaki-niku don is priced at 100 yen more than a standard beef bowl

▼Yoshinoya’s gyūdon: regular 380 yen, large 480 yen, XL 630 yen

Competitor Sukiya is also rolling out the big guns with mouth-watering additions like Ton kabayaki don (pork steamed, then glazed and cooked over a charcoal grill)  coming it at a whopping 630 yen (US$8)- more than twice the price of its regular gyūdon which costs just 280 yen.

▼Sukiya’s pricey, but tempting, new dish

▼The same restaurant’s beef bowl, in a variety of sizes. Regular 280 yen

So, what has prompted this price hike and the sudden strategy change among the gyūdon gang?

“Yoshinoya and Sukiya chain have continued their aggressive price wars for almost three years now, but the effects are starting to wear off,” reports Yahoo News. “Yoshinoya alone saw a 1.9% decrease in overall revenue during the first half of the financial year.”

While 1.9% may not sound like much, it’s worth bearing in mind that the chain generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and with the cost of ingredients like rice, cooking oil and meat expected to continue to rise, the company can expect to see even greater loses if it continues to rely solely on its cheap-and-cheerful gyūdon dish alone.

The big three are hoping that, with the introduction of newer, more expensive menu items, customers will return to their stores and be more likely to part with their cash.

Will the move pay off? Or will Japan’s budgeting diners turn to increasingly popular fast food chain McDonald’s? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to try out that Ton kabayaki don because researching all this food has made me hungry…

Source: Yahoo! Japan News Images: Yoshinoya Sukiya