End of $3 ramen? Inflation squeezes Japan's comfort food

Nikkei -- Aug 15
Inflation has spread to one of Japan's favorite, most affordable meals: ramen.

The average cost of a bowl of ramen was 617 yen ($4.57 at current rates) in June, Japan's interior ministry said, the highest price since it began tracking the data in 2000. With food costs rising across the board, national chains and mom-and-pop operations alike are struggling to keep price-conscious customers happy while dealing with ever-growing expenses.

"We've been doing what we could to not raise prices, but we've finally hit our limit," said Hiroshige Aono, president of ramen chain operator Hiday Hidaka.

The company's ubiquitous Hidakaya chain is known for cheap prices, with a bowl of basic, no-frills ramen going for 390 yen, or less than $3. It has resisted hikes even as its rivals caved, instead automating more prep work and embracing a tablet-based ordering system to help offset rising food costs.

The strategy has largely been a success. Traffic at existing stores jumped 28.8% on the year in the March-May period, which was partly the result of Japan lifting coronavirus restrictions in March. But "our decision to maintain our prices contributed as well," Aono said.

Still, even Hidakaya cannot fight inflation forever. Prices are rising for the wheat used to make noodles and soy sauce for the soup. The surge in pork and lard, part of which it imports, has hit the chain especially hard. ...continue reading

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