The gyudon (rice covered with beef and vegetables) refers to a cuisine for the common people that consists of a bowl of rice topped with solid pieces of chopped-up pork ribs or pieces of sliced meat simmered with onions in a mixture of sugar and soy sauce. Red pickled ginger, shichimi togarashi (a mixture of red cayenne pepper and other aromatic spices), and a hen's egg are often added as the relish according to taste.
It also may be simmered with konjac as a vestige from sukiyakidon (beef bowl) described below.
It originates from the gyumeshi, a bowl of rice topped with gyunabe (Japanese hot pot with beef and vegetables), that was invented for the common people during the Meiji period when the beef eating culture spread in the movement for civilization and enlightenment. Sukiyakidon (beef bowl) was also invented in the same way.
Since Yoshinoya Co., Ltd. built up a franchise chain store of gyudon as a fast food in 1973, it has become popular. Yoronotaki Co., Ltd., Matsuya Foods Company, Limited, Zensho Co., Ltd., Kobelamptei and other food industries followed Yoshinoya Co., Ltd. to build up a chain store of the gyudon (gyumeshi).
("Yoronotaki Co., Ltd." withdrew from the gyudon business later.)
When Kobelamptei, a member of the Daiei Group, announced that it was opening the first outlet in Ebisu (Shibuya Ward) in 1993, Yoshinoya Co., Ltd. of the Saison Group immediately took actions to open its Ebisu Ekimae shop two door away from the first outlet of Kobelamptei.
The current gyudon as a fast food that started from Yoshinoya has its own distinct seasoning that makes it different from gyunabe. In contrast, Kobelamptei's gyudon, a late comer, had a rather traditional gyunabe-like seasoning. However, Kobelamptei reconsidered its seasoning and started to give a common gyudon taste later probably because its original taste was different from what consumers liked.
Services and Features
Chain stores of the gyudon may accept a request of serving according to the customer's taste, such as 'tsuyudaku' (plenty of sauce) and 'negidaku' (plenty of sliced onions). However, these services are not posted anywhere in the restaurant.
Tsuyudaku, a type of serving the customer can request according to their taste. It is a jargon referring to the bowl with more sauce of ingredients than usual. The bowl with less sauce is called tsuyunuki. Furthermore there is a word, tsuyudakudaku, that refers to the bowl with much more sauce. Some may request their bowls with further more sauce by using a word having repeated "daku," for example, "tsuyudakudakudakudakudaku," albeit not often.
Tsuyudaku originates from the bowl eaten by salaried workers who did not have enough time on the way to workplace in the morning and wanted a lot of sauce to eat quickly. This type of the bowl, which became popular among salaried workers, began to be called "tsuyudaku."
In a music program of TV Asahi Corporation, a Tomomi KAHARA happily talked with its host, Tamori that she liked to eat "regular size tsuyudaku with tama (raw egg)" at the Yoshinoya Harajuku shop. This made the name of tsuyudaku widely known to the public and contributed to a growing number of female customers.
Also Tamori responded to her showing his further fanatic liking for it by saying, 'I find middle-aged men having a drink with gyusara (beef dish) as a side dish unobtrusively elegant at gyudon shops in the daytime.'
In a gyudon chain store, the tsuyudaku-related cost is said to reach hundreds of million yen.
Negidaku (plenty of sliced onions) and Neginuki (less sliced onions) are types of serving the customer can request according to their taste. Negidaku is the bowl with plenty of onions of the ingredients, whereas neginuki is the bowl with less sliced onions. Yoshinoya stopped accepting the orders of Negidaku and Niginuki in November and December, 2007.
One of the local features of gyudon chains is that only Yoshinoya Co., Ltd, Sukiya, and Nakau Company, Limited have outlets within the Shikoku region. Another feature is that Shikoku has a fewer number of outlets. Shikoku has special local circumstances (high toll fares of the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge). The break-even points in this region are higher than in other regions, making the chains reluctant to expand into the region.
Some chains open their outlets in event sites as a tenant to sell gyudon bento (lunch box).
Major gyudon restaurants
Only Yoshinoya Co., Ltd, and Sukiya have deployed outlets throughout the 47 prefectures. The top-four companies according to the number of outlets (Yoshinoya Co., Ltd, Sukiya, Matsuya, and Nakau Company, Limited) may be called "Shitenno (four guardian kings)," because they keep far ahead of the others.
Matsuya Foods Company, Limited
The company keeps calling it 'gyumeshi' instead of gyudon. It is popular for its service in which miso soup is attached to its bowl for free.
It ranks third in the industry in terms of the number of outlets
Sukiya is a department directly operated by Zensho Co., Ltd. In September 2008, Sukiya surpassed the oldest chain Yoshinoya and became the industry-leading in the number of outlets. Their outlets are all directly managed restaurants.
Nakau is a gyudon chain that originated in Osaka.
Its characteristics are that it has long focused on the menus other than gyudon--for example, oyako-don (bowl of rice with chicken and eggs, literally, parent and child rice bowl)
(This is said to be because it had a head start in withdrawing its gyudon from the market and suffered less heavy damage than other chains, when the BSE issue described below occurred.)
In 2006, it became a consolidated subsidiary of Zensho Co., Ltd. At this time there was a rumor that it was going to be absorbed in future by Sukiya, a member chain of the group. However Zensho Co., Ltd. announced that it would not absorb or merge it but maintain the brand of Nakau in parallel with Sukiya, because it highly appreciated its name recognition in Kansai and its uniqueness of the menus.
It ranks fourth in the industry in terms of the number of outlets
Kobelamptei is a subsidiary of Mitsuiwa Corporation. It originated from Tokyo, although it has "Kobe" in its name. Its outlets are only in throughout the Kanto. It ranks fifth in the industry in terms of the number of outlets, but is far behind the fourth runner, Nakau.
The chain opens in Tokyo. It does not advertise at all.
The chain opens only in Kawasaki city and Okinawa Prefecture. The owner of the chain runs the chain of Yakiniku (grilled meat) named 'An-an'.
It is a chain which is not generally known but loved better than Gyudontaro by gyudon fans. It is characterized by its garnished yakidofu (grilled bean curd). Its menu includes oyako-don and katsu-don (a bowl of rice with a pork cutlet on top).
Sanbo (Gyudon restaurant)
It is famous as an old restaurant in Akihabara.
Yoshinoya Co., Ltd.
It is a subsidiary of Yoshinoya Holdings Co., Ltd. It is the first chain to have expanded the gyudon as a first food. It had long occupied the first place in the industry in the number of outlets but was replaced by Sukiya and fell to the second place in September 2008.
Effect of BSE
When cows infected with BSE (bovine spongeform encephalopathy, mad cow disease) were reported to be found in Washington State in the United Sates, the Japanese government decided to ban US beef imports on December 26. This had heavy effects on gyudon chains that had been supported by inexpensive American beef.
Yoshinoya temporarily terminated the sales of tokumori (super large size). It started not only to sell the pork bowl, salmon and salmon roe bowl, chicken bowl, and other alternative menus but also to sell a morning set meal all day long. In addition, some outlets mainly in Tokyo was forced to close during the late time at night and during the period throughout the New year holidays.
Nakau terminated gyudon sales at some outlets. Other gyudon chains offered new or alternative menus. However, they were force to take measures because otherwise they were likely to run out of the stock by February in the same year.
Nakau terminated gyudon sales completely. It was the first termination in the major chains.
Sukiya stopped serving the gyudon completely.
Yoshinoya terminated gyudon sales at all outlets except for its first outlet, Tukiji shop, and the outlets in the facilities of racecourses and speedboat racing stadiums whose menus were not allowed to be changed under the contract.
Matsuya Foods Company, Limited was the last major chain to terminate gyudon sales (although some outlets sold it as a special order during the period from March 10 to March 31, 2004.)
It was unprecedented that gyudon disappeared in the biggest four chains temporarily.
Kobelamptei first had a policy to terminate gyudon sales at the end of March of the same year. However, it announced that it would continue gyudon sales in and after April because the chain, whose outlets were fewer in number than other chains and located mainly in Tokyo and adjacent prefectures, had a prospect of securing Australian beef.
Showing its policy to continue gyudon sales, Gyudontaro started to take measure around the mid-February, when it was about to run out the stock of beef; for example, it mixed pork temporarily (from the mid-February to mid-March), switched over to Australian beef, and revised the price.
Kobelamptei continued gyudon sales by switching to Australian beef and revising the price.
Sukiya resumed gyudon sales by using Australian beef.
Matsuya resumed gyumeshi sales by using beef made in People's Republic of China (later switching over to Australian beef).
Almost all the outlets of Yoshinoya started to sell 'beef yakiniku bowl,' which used Australian beef.
Nakau began to sell 'beef kalbi bowl' at all its outlets using consecutively US beef, Australian beef, Mexican beef.
Yoshinoya revived its gyudon sales only for one day in a limited number (1.5million bowls nationwide).
February 15 - February 19:
Nakau revived its gyudon sales only for five days.
April 29 - May 8:
Yoshinoya sold its gyudon of Mexican beef only at the exhibition site of 'The International Festival UTAGE 2005 IN OSAKA' held at Intex Osaka, Suminoe Ward, Osaka City in a limited number (2000 boxes of regular gyudon bento [box lunch] for 400 yen per box).
A ban on import of US and Canadian beef was lifted with conditions. As the result of this, Yoshinoya was reported to resume the sale of its gyudon in about 2 months. In contrast, Sukiya determined a different policy of not using such beef for a time with a safety concern.
Following the report on the removal of a ban on US beef import, Yoshinoya determined to revive gyudon sales only from February 11 to 13 in that it was able to secure enough beef to serve a certain quantity of the bowls. It suggested its policy of selling gyudon for a limited period in and after March.
It was found that the beef imported from the US contained the spine--a region whose removal was required as a material designated at risk of containing infectious agent of BSE. The Japanese government immediately imposed again a total ban on US beef import. As the result, Yoshinoya announced that it would postpone the revival of its gyudon sales for a time on January 21. Then on July 27, the Japanese government decided to resume again imports only from the facilities confirmed to be safe.
Yoshinoya restarted to sell only 1 million gyudon bowls (1000 bowls per outlet) at 11 o'clock as 'Gyudon Rivival Festival.'
A line was formed in front of each outlet before it opened, and the media covered this campaign prominently. Served on that day were only the regular size bowl (380 yen) and large size bowl (480 yen). As a part of the campaign, Yoshinoya gave its 'original cotton towel commemorating the revival of the gyudon' (a towel per bowl) in variations of two colors: orange and white. Later it sold a limited number of its gyudon bowls labeled 'gyudon festival' from October 1 to 5 and from November 1 to 5.
Yoshinoya expanded the availability of its gyudon from the limited period to limited daytime hours every day--from 11 to 15 o'clock.
Yoshinoya expanded the availability of its gyudon to every day from 11 to 24 o'clock.
March 17 and 20:
On March 17, Yoshinoya announced to start round-the clock gyudon sales for the first time in four years and a month because it was successful to expand the supply source of US beef, a main ingredient of the gyudon, and became capable of securing the quantity of beef required for regularly offering 24-hours serving at about 1040 outlets nationwide.. On March 20, it started the service.
April 21 and 23:
On April 21, Yoshinoya's 'Tokyo Plant' (Otone-machi, Saitam prefecture) found that one out of the 700 boxes of US beef imported by ITOCHU Corporation for Yoshinoya in August 2007 contained the back region meat with a spine-- the specific risk material of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. On April 23, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare announced this fact.
Because Yoshinoya had not sold the beef in question to consumers thanks to its successful inspection scheme at the plants, it emphasized, 'Yoshinoya's gyudon is safe.'
Having supply sources other than that plant, it said; 'We are not going to abandon round-the-clock sales because we have already secured the stock of beef.' (the public affair manager of Yoshinoya Holdings Co., Ltd.)
Kobelamptei cut the price for its (regular) gyudon to 290 yen. However, competitors did not follow and it raised prices three times since July 1996, and returned to the original price in March 1998.
Kobelamptei cut only the price of (regular size) gyudon for takeout from 400 yen to 290 yen.
Matsuya Foods Company, Limited achieved a store network of 300 branches in April of the same year.. Commemorating this, it cut the sales price of gyumeshi (of the regular size from 390 yen to 290 yen). It had planned limited time sales but continued sales, partly because the price was favorably accepted.
Kobelamptei cut the price of its (regular size) gyudon to be eaten in the outlet from 400 yen to 290 yen.
Zensho Co., Ltd. cut the price of its (regular size) gyudon from 400 yen to 280 yen.
Yoshinoya lowered its regular price of the (regular size of) gyudon from 400 yen. It held a sale for 250 yen each.
Yoshinoya cut its prices of its (regular size) gyudon from 400 yen to 280 yen in outlets in western Japan (including three prefectures of Aichi, Gifu, and Toyama),
Yoshinoya cut the prices of its (regular size) gyudon from 400 yen to 280 yen in outlets in eastern Japan (including three prefectures of Shizuoka, Nagano, and Nigata),
Kobelamptei cut the price of its (regular size) gyudon from 290 yen to 270 yen.
Naku cut the price of its (regular size) gyudon from 400 yen to 280 yen.
Small-scale gyudon chains, Gyudontaro and Tatsuya entered the price war.
(Gyudontaro cut the price of the regular size from 250 yen to 200 yen and Tatsuya cut the price of the regular size from 400 yen to 300 yen, then to 250 yen, and then to 200 yen)
Around Summer to Autumn:
Kobelamptei raised the price of its (regular size) gyudon from 270 yen to 280 yen.
Early to mid February:
Due to the above-mentioned 'effect of BSE', Nakau, Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya terminated gyudon sales (except for some shops). With this, a low-price policy for the gyudon ended.
Kobelamptei announced to continue gyudon sales.
Showing its policy to continue gyudon sales, Gyudontaro started to take measures around the mid-February, when it was about to run out the stock of U.S. beef; for example, it mixed pork as a temporary measure (from the mid-February to mid-March) and switched to Australian beef. It raised the price of the regular size from 200 yen to 250 yen.
Tatsuya showed its policy to continue gyudon sales but had to often change the prices due to the effect of BSE (200 yen - 300 yen).
Kobelamptei continued gyudon sales by switching to Australian beef
However, it raised the price of the regular size from 280 yen to 350 yen.
The middle of the 2000's:
Gyudon chains revived gyudon but raised the prices to the 300 yen range from the price level set before the BSE problem occurred.
Kobelamptei raised the price of (the regular size) gyudon from 350 yen to 380 yen with the introduction of Mexian beef as well as Australian beef.
Maido Okini Shokudo of Fujio Food System Co., Ltd started to add the gyudon to its menu and offer the regular size for 280 yen.
Sukiya cut the prices of its regular size gyudon and curry rice to 330 yen (from the previous prices of 350 yen for a gyudon bowl and 380 yen for a curry rice.)
With this price hike, it removed the pork bowl from the menu. In September 2008, the number of outlets of Sukiya exceeded that of Yoshinoya which had long occupied first place in the industry in terms of the number of outlets. It appears that Sukiya went on an offensive all at once. Some suggest that this price cut may trigger the price cutting war to occur again. For reference, major competitors' prices of regular size gyudon are 380 yen for Yoshinona, 380 yen for Matsuya, and 390 yen for Nakau as of May 2009..
Gyudon bento is available at a delicatessen section of some super markets, convenience stores, and take-out stores. Some offer delivery service.
Gyudon chains have takeout containers to sell gyudon as "gyudon bento.'
Instant gyudon mixes, easy-to-make retort foods and frozen foods are marketed by food companies--Ezaki Glico Co., Ltd., S&B Foods Inc., Maruha Corporation, and gyudon chains--Sukiya and Matsuya.
Yoshinoya also sells frozen 'gyudon ingredients.'
This product was seen to be traded at an exorbitant price at the Internet auction when the effect of BSE issue caused the production to halt between February 2004 and March 2008. Yoshinoya sold only 'butadon ingredients' and 'beef yakiniku bowl ingredients' of frozen foods during the period, but resumed sales of 'frozen gyudon ingredients' through some mail orders or co-op stores after April 2008.
Already mixed 'gyudon sauce' is also being sold by food makers.
As was mentioned at the start, the recipe of the gyudon in general is to 'slice beef and onions to the proper size, simmer them in a mixture of seasonings such as soy sauce, sugar and sweet sake, and put them on a bowl of rice.'
Some seem to study how to copy the taste of Yoshinoya at home and make public on a web site their recipes using garlic, wine and other key ingredients.