Japanese Look to Export Octopus Dumplings

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 25, 2006; 3:49 PM

TOKYO -- If Morio Sase has his way, hungry teenagers around the world will soon be snacking on something more exotic than McDonald's hamburgers: takoyaki, or octopus dumplings.

With more than 350 takeout stores in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan already, Sase's Gindaco chain is one of a barrage of fast-food companies bringing lowbrow Japanese chow to overseas markets. Its first U.S. store is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2007, and it hopes to open 20 stores in California by 2010.

"When I was a small boy, it was street food that made me feel good and warm inside," Sase said at a recent interview at the Tokyo headquarters of HotLand Corp., which runs Gindaco.

Hand-grilled in iron molds by cooks behind a large display window, the octopus dumplings are made from wheat flour paste mixed with fish stock, spring onions and boiled octopus chunks, and drizzled with a sweet sauce, dried bonito flakes and seaweed.

"Foods like takoyaki are closer to Japanese hearts than sushi or sashimi," Sase said. "They're delicious, healthy and warm _ the perfect snack."

Faced with uncertain demand for fast food as Japan's population ages, an increasing number of the nation's chains are looking overseas for new markets.

Government figures show nearly one in five Japanese were aged 65 or older in 2004, and the domestic food restaurant market has declined for seven straight years since 1998, according to the Food Service Industry Research Center.

One of the first Japanese fast food chains to head overseas was the beef bowl chain Yoshinoya D&C Co. Since its first U.S. store in Denver in 1975, Yoshinoya's American network has grown to 82 eateries in California and New York.

Last year, those eateries raked in about $77.3 million in sales for a profit of $2.5 million _ still a fraction of its overall earnings. It expects sales to grow to $78.9 million in 2006.

"We initially had to tackle a preconception of Japanese food as haute cuisine, especially in America," said Yasunori Yoshimura, a spokesman for Yoshinoya in Tokyo.

A far cry from pricey, elegant sushi, a regular bowl of the grilled beef over rice sells for $3.18 at U.S. stores.

"We're convinced whatever people find tasty in Japan, people anywhere would find tasty," he said.

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