In 1970, a trained chef Kunio Ichinose, opened a restaurant "Kitchen Kuni" when he was 28 years old. As the business went well and the number of restaurants grew, the founder Ichinose started to sense a dilemma: More restaurants meant more employees, but it gradually became harder and harder for him to express his opinion and belief since he was afraid of losing his employees.
It was when he coincidentally encountered an iron plate; its sales copy said "with this magic plate, you can cook 20 to 30 servings on your own in no time." Ichinose bought the plate and took it home. Later in the evening, his wife served thinly-sliced beef and rice on the magic place for dinner. Stir-fried beef and rice on the plate and seasoned with pepper and soy sauce made such a mouth watering dinner. "This is it!" With no hesitation, Ichinose soon added this meal as "Beef Pepper Rice" to the menu at Steak Kuni in Mukoujima, Tokyo. A simple home-cooked meal led to the birth of Pepper Rice.
At the beginning, Pepper Rice was served on an iron place which was pre-heated on a gas stove for six minutes. Later, in collaboration with an electric power company and a kitchen instrument manufacturer, a revolutionary cooking system was successfully developed: A high power electromagnetic cooker which controls the temperature of the iron plate and can automatically stop heating when the temperature of the plate reaches the predetermined temperature (260 degrees C), and therefore, doesn't require a chef to adjust the heat.
This is the basics of Pepper Lunch that has been the underlying basis for the development of Pepper Food Service Co., Ltd. The second prototype of "Pepper Rice" was served at Steak Kuni in Ryogoku, Tokyo, and gradually refined to a perfect beef dish for everyone.
In addition, all of this was happening at a time when the import liberalization of beef and a stronger yen against foreign currencies made the import of beef cheaper, and because of this, a number of chain steakhouses that served steak at a reasonable price were opening one after another. It was indeed the best time for the birth of Pepper Lunch. By that time, Ichinose had a business model in his mind; a model to provide tasty steak in fast food style at a reasonable price, similar to Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food beef-bowl restaurant chain. If the new system was successfully installed, it wouldn't require trained chefs any more and Ichinose could focus on the management without being worried about losing employees by telling them what he has to say. Moreover, it would make it possible to provide tasty steak dishes at low prices to people, especially young people, who wish to eat a meat dish every day. Even franchising could be possible with this business model, Ichinose thought.
Once he decided, he gave a demonstration of cooking using the high power electromagnetic cooker and the special iron plate at Hoteres Japan (an International Hotel Restaurant Exhibition) venue in order for many people to acknowledge the merit of this system.
During the exhibition, thousands of people tried Ichinose's food sample, but he didn't get as many positive responses as he had imagined. The result of the demonstration seemed to be rather unsuccessful. However, there was only one person who made contact with Ichinose after the exhibition. His name was Norio Yajima. Yajima, who visited the Hoteres Japan on the final day of exhibition, almost fatalistically encountered the Ichinose's demonstration nearly the closing time. After working at his brother's supermarket for 25 years, Yajima, who used to be a chef, started to think about opening his own restaurant and wanted to make use of his cooking experience. He visited the exhibition in order to have clearer vision of opening a restaurant, and as watching Ichinose's demonstration, he drew an image of a menu using this iron plate. This image perfectly matched the one that Ichinose had in his mind. Then, the two businessmen had intense discussions over their business plans for the next three months, and finally opened the restaurant that they dreamed of.
This became the first Pepper Lunch franchise restaurant. They were absolutely certain about the restaurant being successful even though there was no model for this type of restaurant.
On July 3, 1994, the first Pepper Lunch was proudly opened in Ofuna, Kanagawa.
On the menu, there were six different steak dishes, side menus including salad and drinks, and all the dishes were priced at half the cost of what Steak Kuni offered. For example, Beef Pepper Rice was 630 yen and Sirloin Steak was 900 yen.
Since there was no time or venue for staff training before the opening, Ichinose was in the kitchen from the opening day to cook the dishes while he also gave on-the-job training to Yajima and other staff regarding how to use the equipment. They cooked 500 servings of steak on only the first day of opening. This fact surprised no one else but Ichinose and he truly felt assured of the quality of this cooking system. He was so full of emotion that he kept telling a taxi driver about how great the Pepper Lunch and its cooking system was on his way home even though it was almost midnight after a long exhausted day.
On the electromagnetic cooker, the temperature of the iron plate is perfectly controlled and thus they can be heated to exactly the same temperature for every serving. Customers can finish cooking their meals on the table by grilling sliced beef on the iron plate however they like. With their experience as chefs, Ichinose and Yajima established an original serving style for Pepper Lunch; fast, tasty, and reasonably priced steak dishes for everyone. It is also an interesting paradox that the chefs presented a chefless cooking system.
Pepper Lunch franchise restaurants started to increase in number, and in September 2000, Pepper Lunch at Shibuya Station Complex opened and soon became very popular, constantly recording monthly sales of 15 million yen. This restaurant is now recognized as a symbol of the Pepper Lunch franchise. The success of Pepper Lunch Shibuya also attracted the media in a great deal and coverage by various press-related outlets enhanced sales even more. With all of these lucky coincidences, Pepper Lunch started to be recognized widely. "Pepper Lunch? I know Pepper Lunch." "It's the restaurant in Shibuya Station Complex, isn't it?" More and more people knew about Pepper Lunch, and more and more conversation like this started to be heard in many places.
From March 2003, Pepper Lunch launched a project of franchising stalls at food courts.
For this project, we improved the weight and shape of the iron plate. The plate became 1.2 kg lighter than the conventional plate by developing an iron-coated aluminum plate. The rim of the plate became higher in order to prevent the food from spilling while mixing. The electromagnetic cooker was also improved to stop heating automatically when the plate reached the predetermined temperature. All of these improvements brought quicker and better quality of food for the customers. The menu was also revised, adding small-sized portions of Beef Pepper Rice and various set menus, in order to accommodate customers of food courts who are mostly families and women.
Eventually, it became a business model for Pepper Lunch to provide food stall type restaurants in the suburbs and conventional flagship type restaurants in the city while managing the know-how for each model according their experiences.
Pepper Lunch, with its patented electromagnetic cooker that incorporates a temperature sensor to automatically switch off the heat, as well as two types of patented plates, iron plate and iron-coated aluminum plate, began to expand the franchise business overseas, mainly in Asia from 2006.
Serving steak which is exactly the same taste (original butter, sauce, and recipe) as the one in Japan, Pepper Lunch became internationally popular and the number of restaurants has grown to 119 in six years (as of the end of August 2012).
Pepper Lunch adopted a business strategy for overseas that is basically the same as that of the domestic market in terms of the system and the recipe.
However, original menus including seafood and pasta dishes are also served with the approval of the Japanese Headquarters, taking into consideration religious matters and the various needs related to taste.
There is also a difference in eating style, introducing no counters for single persons, many seats and large tables for families instead, and a "pay first, then served" system.
Ichinose's strong passion for serving tasty steak all around the world and dedicated support from customers are the driving force for Pepper Lunch to expand the franchise system beyond Asia to the world in the future.