Japan Upgrades Vending Machines as US Restaurants Try New Concepts

Japan food vending machine

This week in restaurants, Japan trials upscale vending machines, Chipotle experiments and eateries tap subscriptions.

In an effort to revive its vending machine industry, Japan has been trying out options to purchase high-end foods such as wagyu beef, sashimi and caviar via these machines, as Bloomberg News recently reported. Consumers can purchase these foods in frozen or chilled form to be heated up at home.

Vending machines are far more common and popular in the country than they are, say, in the United States, but, as the outlet reported, demand has declined with the expansion of convenience stores in the past couple of decades.

Still, the country’s population continues to be more open to the concept than that of the United States, despite American operators’ demand for a service model that drives sales without the typical cost of labor.

Take, for instance, Yo-Kai Express, an autonomous restaurant company with locations in the United States, Japan and Taiwan. Amanda Tsung, the company’s chief operating officer, spoke with PYMNTS about the gap between adoption in Japan and the U.S.

“In Japan, because it is the vending machine Mecca, I do see more participation,” Tsung said. “People are more likely to try it for the first time than compared to the U.S. Like, I saw a 75-year-old man walking up to our machine in Japan and trying it. … I thought that was quite interesting.”

Chipotle Tests Digital Appeal of More Upscale Restaurant Concept

As some major restaurant companies turn to acquisitions to expand their offerings and reach more consumers, fast-casual giant Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has nearly 3,200 locations across five countries, is taking a different approach.

The restaurant chain is developing new brands from the ground up in an effort to identify and cater to consumers’ evolving preferences. The company announced Wednesday (Feb. 15) that it is testing a new concept, Farmesa, in partnership with virtual restaurant company Kitchen United Mix.

“One of our strategic objectives is to create or invest in emerging culinary spaces and restaurant concepts that fit within Chipotle’s food with integrity mission and make fresh food daily,” Chipotle chairman and CEO Brian Niccol said in a statement. “Our New Ventures team, which was created in 2022, developed a unique restaurant concept that uses classic culinary techniques with flavorful ingredients in a fast casual setting that we’re excited to test and learn on before we determine a broader rollout strategy.”

The restaurant, which is currently being tested in one location in Santa Monica, sells bowls that are about one price tier up from a meal at Chipotle, each costing between $11.95 and $16.95. There is also a digital ordering component, given the tech partnership, where the brand is also available for pickup through Kitchen United Mix’s site and for delivery or pickup via third-party aggregator, with Chipotle looking to test the concept’s appeal across eCommerce channels.

“Launching Farmesa in the Kitchen United Mix food hall in Santa Monica and partnering with third-party partners for pickup or delivery will allow us to reach a large number of consumers, learn quickly, and evolve our concept and menu so that we can deliver on our goals before expanding,” Nate Lawton, vice president of new ventures at Chipotle, said in the announcement.

Small Pizza Chain Taps Subscription Commerce With ‘Slice Squad’

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based pizza chain Primanti Bros. Restaurant and Bar, which has 38 locations in and around its home state, announced on its social media channels Thursday (Feb. 16) the launch of a pizza subscription, offering a slice a day every day for $9.99 a month.

The pizzeria is not the first restaurant chain to offer a subscription program that provides a daily item for a set monthly fee. Quick-service restaurant (QSR) giant Taco Bell, for one, which has more than 7,000 U.S. restaurants and almost 500 in international markets, occasionally brings back its Taco Lover’s Pass, which offers members of the brand’s loyalty program one taco a day for pickup for 30 days for a one-time $10 fee.

Other restaurant brands to make moves into the subscription commerce space include fast-casual chains Panera Bread, Subway and Sweetgreen, among others.

Findings from PYMNTS’ study “Digital Divide: Restaurant Subscribers And Loyalty Programs” found that only 17% of consumers are “very” or “extremely” interested in being provided a restaurant subscription service, and 25% are neutral to the concept.

That said, those who are open to the model are brands’ most loyal customers. The study, which drew from a December survey of a census-balanced panel of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, found that 78% of subscribers and 73% of those interested in subscriptions reported being very or extremely loyal toward their preferred QSRs. Conversely, just 41% of those who are uninterested in subscriptions said the same.