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MARCH 2017 • FOODSERVICE EQUIPMENT & SUPPLIES • 85 J apanese food, particularly meals prepared on a hibachi grill, hits on everything consumers seek when dining out: fresh ingredients, prepared to order, in front of diners — all expeditiously. It's no wonder that this foodservice segment has not experienced significant changes over the years like other concepts. If it's not broke, there's no need to fix it. Still, this ethnic food is not the American diet staple that Italian and Mexican cuisine have become. According to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, only 13 percent of consumers say they frequently eat Japanese cuisine, other than sushi, and 28 percent eat it occasionally. Surprisingly, 20 percent of those surveyed were not familiar with this cuisine and 12 percent have heard of it, but haven't tried it. Only one in five consumers ages 18 to 34 say they eat Japanese food at least once a month. The majority of these diners are from the West Coast. "Hibachi restaurants are typically for special occasions," says Richard F. Weil, senior consultant at National Restau- rant Consultants, based in Golden, Colo. "People don't gen- erally go out to [these types of establishments on a whim]." According to the NRA, among consumers who say they eat Japanese cuisine other than sushi frequently or occasion- ally, 63 percent dine at a sit-down table service restaurant, while 26 percent prepare it at home and 22 percent order takeout or delivery from a restaurant or fast-food place. Older consumers are more likely to seek out this cuisine at a table service restaurant. Though the traditional hibachi Japanese restaurants have largely remained unchanged, the segment has seen the emer- gence of izakayas, or Japanese-style bistros, in recent years. "Izakayas, which are popular eating and drinking establishments in Japan, are becoming more popular in the U.S.," says Weil. "And more places are using binchotan, a charcoal imported from Japan, to cook foods like meat and skewered fish." Binchotan charcoal, more compressed and denser than the traditional type, imparts extremely high heat that pro- duces a good sear and flavorful result. This is most often used in conjunction with charbroilers, although it requires hoods that can handle high heat. "The makeup air has to be in line when using this char- coal, due to the amount of heat expelled," says Weil. "A res- taurant's fire suppression system has to be adapted as well." The high heat and ventilation in tableside hibachi cook- ing are the biggest challenges in the segment. Not only do operators need to take the hood system and fire suppression requirements into account, but they must also take into con- sideration regulations in terms of food safety with the lack of sneeze guards, use of raw meat and fish and proximity of the guests to the food preparation area. Relative to others, this segment uses less equipment — basically hibachis and items for prepping — which keeps the investment cost at a reasonable level, says Weil. That is not the case with sushi, which many hibachi restaurants now offer due to its rising popularity and more reasonable price points. "More people associate Japanese food with sushi, which requires a lot of prep, refrigeration and display cases as well as deep freeze chests that hold below 40 degrees F," says Weil. "These restaurants need to receive, hold, cut, refrigerate and serve fresh, uncooked fish. Because this is accomplished with bare hands, health departments may require a waiver, and there is stringent HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) monitoring and recording that must take place." O-Ku's sushi bar is in the dining room, but still considered a food prep area.