February 28, 2017 8:00 am JST

Japan's chairless steak chain aims to stand out in US

Ikinari Steak customers asked to yield their seats for savings

ELISABETH ROSEN, Contributing writer

Ikinari Steak founder Kunio Ichinose, left, helps prepare a ribeye steak at the chain's new Manhattan outlet. (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

NEW YORK -- In the narrow, warmly lit space, casually dressed diners dig into steaks sizzling on slabs of cast iron, sip pinot noir and Sapporo beer and chat with friends. This could be any trendy New York restaurant, except for one thing: everyone is standing.

Ikinari Steak pioneered the no-chairs steakhouse concept in Japan where it has been phenomenally successful, establishing 116 branches since its founding in 2013. The restaurants' popularity stems from a simple value proposition: by leaving out seats, Ikinari can squeeze in more customers and they in turn can be expected to linger less, allowing more people to be served each day. This allows the restaurant to sell steaks for half the price of those at more luxurious steakhouses. Whenever the company opens a new location, long daily lines form outside for two or three months, according to founder Kunio Ichinose.

Now the company is trying to crack the U.S. market. Its new branch opened Feb. 23 in Manhattan's East Village, just steps from the American beachhead of Hong Kong dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan and popular ramen imports including Ippudo and Zundo-ya. The decision to locate here had nothing to do with those competitors, Ichinose said.

Ikinari has 40 standing spots at small communal tables, as well as 10 seats tucked into the back corner, an accommodation also made at most of its Japanese branches. The company added chairs in 2015 to cater to a wider range of customers including families, the handicapped and elderly diners, although some branches still have only standing spots.

The ordering process is not exactly intuitive: from your table, you order drinks and side dishes like rice and salad, then approach the counter with your number, where you choose from three cuts -- ribeye, sirloin and filet, all from an Illinois-based supplier -- and indicate how much beef you want. On the restaurant's opening night, servers frequently had to explain the process to Japanese-speaking and American customers.

The pricing system also differs from what Americans are used to. Steaks are measured in grams, rather than ounces as is customary in American steakhouses, and priced at 8-11 cents per gram depending on cut. The minimum order for sirloin (200g) goes for $16, while an equivalent piece of the more tender filet costs $22. At lunchtime, diners can opt for a $20 set meal of chuck-eye steak with salad, soup and rice, tip included.

"It's very good, especially if you want steak quickly," said Ryan, a consultant who came to eat at Ikinari Steak on opening night after reading about it. He did not mind the logistics of cutting and eating a steak standing up, theorizing the posture was "good for digestion," although he added that the lack of chairs made the restaurant "not a place to socialize."

A key element of the steakhouse's popularity in Japan is the Beef Mileage loyalty program, a card linked to an app that tracks how much diners consume and rewards them when they reach certain levels. Ichinose himself has consumed 83.1kg, placing him 120th in the overall rankings. When asked if he would return, Ryan's face lit up and he waved his new Mileage card.

"Of course! I have a meat card now," he said. "I'll probably come once a month."

Tall ambitions

This would be encouraging news for Ichinose, who hopes to open 10 branches of Ikinari Steak in New York this year and 2-3 more within the following six months. This is an ambitious goal, especially given Manhattan's formidable rents. But Ichinose believes that the breakneck pace of growth will work as well as it did in Japan, where he opened 30 branches in the first year there.

"Americans love steak," he said confidently, adding that if the New York branches are a success, the next step will be to expand west to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Trained as a chef, Ichinose has been immersed in the steak industry for over two decades. His first venture was Pepper Lunch, which he opened in 1994 and which now has 134 locations in Japan as well as a handful in China, Southeast Asia, Australia and Canada. But while the sit-down Pepper Lunch is geared towards the fast-casual dining segment, faster-paced Ikinari Steak emphasizes quality, which may endear it to New Yorkers who care more about the taste of their steak than how they position themselves to consume it.

"New Yorkers have absolutely no trouble standing at all. What they want more these days is just the taste of good food. The word 'bar' really works in NY. There's a mozzarella bar where you can have mozzarella from Milan. There are coffee bars," said Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant consultant. "I can see it as a lunch stop on Wall Street, where the guys have been sitting all day at their desk selling stocks and then they want to come stand up and have steak," he said, but added, "Depending how big the counter is, standing up to wield a knife and fork and then eat could be a challenge."

While the standing concept is popular in Japan, deployed for foods from soba to sushi, it's quite rare in New York. Oreno Corp., which owns 18 standing-only restaurants in Tokyo serving French, Italian and Japanese fare prepared by former Michelin chefs, planned to open a Manhattan branch in 2013. The restaurant would have offered gourmet Japanese dishes including wagyu beef and yakitori at affordable prices but never opened.

And while some New York restaurants have bar-style seating, only one has done away with chairs entirely. In 2012, trendy Montreal-style delicatessen Mile End experimented with the standing-only set-up, a move that the owners intended as an instruction to customers not to linger. However, the design did not go over well then with diners or critics. "Lack of seating at the new Mile End Sandwich Manhattan makes us feel like cows in a feedlot," food columnist Donna Minkowitz wrote. Within six months, the restaurant had added seating.

Amid the past year's wave of Japanese chains coming to New York, Ikinari's standing concept could fare better. The opening of ramen eatery Ichiran drew hundreds of people curious to try the restaurant's solo "flavor concentration booths," indicating that New Yorkers are open to unconventional seating arrangements. And Ikinari's value proposition could also make the crucial difference.

"I think New Yorkers will embrace it. The pricing is extremely reasonable and that is not the case in most steakhouses," restaurant consultant Beatrice Stein said. "Dinner for two in a popular steakhouse costs well over $100 per person, plus tax and gratuity. That cuts out an entire demographic of people who can't afford that experience."

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