Taco Bell Corp., a major U.S. fast food chain, opened a restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Tuesday, returning to the Japanese market ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after an absence of about two decades.
The fast food giant's return to Tokyo comes as other U.S. casual dining chains consider entering the Japanese market to capitalize on a tourism boom ahead of the big sports event, with the number of foreign visitors expected to continue rising on eased visa rules and an expanded range of tax-free items.
Joining forces with Japanese restaurant franchise operator Asrapport Dining Co., Taco Bell, known for Mexican-inspired food such as tacos and burritos, is looking to open more outlets in Japan.
The U.S. fast food chain entered the Japanese market in the 1980s but pulled out of the country, except for U.S. military base locations, in the early 1990s due to sluggish sales.
At its Dogenzaka outlet in Shibuya -- one of the busiest districts in Tokyo packed with shopping and dining outlets and a center for youth fashion and culture -- Taco Bell has started to serve food products including Japan-only menu items such as "Shrimp & Avocado Burrito" and "Taco Rice."
More than 200 people lined up before the outlet opened at 10 a.m. Tuesday with a countdown and applause. Many of them were non-Japanese, including tourists from abroad.
"I'm very excited. I would often go to Taco Bell when I studied in the United States. I'm feeling kind of nostalgic," Takuya Yamaguchi, 34, said after biting into a taco.
"We believe that Taco Bell holds strong growth potential and will enable us to create a new quick service restaurant category by cultivating the strong latent demand for Mexican-inspired food within Japan," Shusaku Higaki, Asrapport Dining's chief executive, said in a release when his company reached the franchise agreement with the U.S. partner.
In Japan, the fast food market has been struggling to deal with a rapidly graying population, but many restaurants are now making efforts to attract more foreign tourists ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
Fast food chains outside Japan are also aiming to capitalize on the business opportunity.
Shake Shack Inc., a chain that grew out of a roadside burger stand in New York, and 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria, operating mainly in California, are planning to open their first overseas restaurant in Tokyo in 2016.
Last year, the number of foreign travelers arriving in Japan soared 29.4 percent from the previous year to a record 13.41 million, the government said earlier this year.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has pledged in its economic growth strategy that it will raise the number of foreign tourists to Japan to over 30 million in 2030.
Taco Bell currently operates over 6,000 restaurants worldwide and has a plan to add 1,300 restaurants outside the United States by 2023. Asrapport runs more than 400 "izakaya" pubs and barbecue restaurants in Japan.