You have to watch out when you say "taco" in Japan. Depending on where you utter the word, you could wind up with a kite or marinated octopus.
But now Taco Bell hopes to give the word new meaning on Japanese menus: the meaty, cheesy concoction piled into a crunchy, golden shell.
The Irvine-based subsidiary of Pepsico announced Thursday that it is about to become the first major Mexican-style food chain to enter the Japanese market. The first bright-yellow Taco Bell marquee has already appeared above a restaurant in Nagoya that will start peddling tacos and burritos on Monday.
Taco Bell is hoping to snare its share of the Japanese fast-food market--estimated by the company at $4.5 billion in annual sales.
Others Have Made Move
It will be the latest company to turn the foreign trade tables by selling its goods in Japan. Already, an expanding list of companies are trying to satisfy the growing Oriental appetite for fast food.
McDonald's Corp. began planting its golden arches in Japan in 1971 and now has more than 600 restaurants there. Kentucky Fried Chicken--which, like Taco Bell, is owned by Pepsico--has a number of restaurants in that country. Mister Donuts, Wendy's International, Denny's, White Castle and 7-Eleven have also joined the crowd of U.S.-style establishments overseas.
There is even some Mexican-style fare. Taco Time, a regional chain with restaurants mainly in the northwest United States, has some sites in Japan.
But Taco Bell hopes to do things on a more grande scale. The company is actively searching for sites throughout Japan's major cities and "sees the potential for opening many more restaurants" in the future, according to a statement.
The Japanese restaurants will be both company-owned and franchise operations.
"Many Japanese businessmen and companies have approached us, and we feel the concept will do very well," a Taco Bell executive said. "We've been encouraged by our research, and we feel there's an opportunity to be successful."
Of course, that will mean a few modifications to appeal to customers who are more used to sushi and tempura than refried beans and enchiritos.
Sauce won't be quite as spicy in Japan. And a new menu item will be sold--a seasoned rice dish with tomatoes, corn, green onions and red sauce. But no chopsticks. "Japanese are adept at using forks. And they expect to find American eating utensils in Western-style restaurants," said Elliot Bloom, a company spokesman.
Otherwise, the menu will remain the same--including the chain's Mexican pizza--with descriptions in Japanese accompanying American pronunciations.
About the only real surprise will be for American tourists, who will pay higher prices for smaller portions. A taco that costs 79 cents here will go for $2.10 in Nagoya and Tokyo. A small Pepsi that costs 69 cents in Orange County will be $1.36 in Japan.
Taco Bell says the prices are consistent with other fast-food restaurants in Japan and that the average bill should be roughly $4.24 to $4.55.
Taco Bell's Nachos Bell Grande, taco salads and Taco Bell Grande will be sold in smaller versions in Japan. "We're downsizing a few items to meet Japanese tastes," Bloom said.
The venture isn't the first time that Taco Bell has gone abroad. The chain already has outlets in the United Kingdom, Canada, Guam and Puerto Rico.
But it will be the first place where customers can order "tacos" and receive only one. Because of the translation problem, Bloom said, patrons will be ordering their tacos in the plural to avoid confusion with kites and marinated octopus.
TACO BELL AT A GLANCE Headquarters: Irvine (company is a subsidiary of Pepsico Inc., Purchase, N.Y.).
Number of employees: 70,000.
Number of restaurants: 2,700.
Foreign locations: Britain, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico.
1987 sales: $1.5 billion.
Taco Bell Prices
All prices in U.S. dollars
U.S. Japan Taco $0.79 $2.10 Small Pepsi $0.69 $1.36 Large Pepsi $1.05 $1.59 Average Meal $4.24-4.55 N/A
Source: Taco Bell