For more than three decades, restaurant company Yoshinoya America Inc. has been serving up cheap but filling bowls of white rice and beef to low-income diners at its fast-food chain Yoshinoya Beef Bowl.

Now, the Torrance company is looking to kick things up a notch with a fast-casual restaurant concept that offers more expensive ingredients such as brown rice, sirloin steak and shitake mushrooms.

The concept, Asiana Grill Yoshinoya, opened in two converted Yoshinoya Beef Bowl locations near college campuses this summer. The first opened near Cal State Fullerton in May and the second near USC in August. The company will begin work to franchise the concept within a year if the restaurants prove successful.

Manuel Villareal, executive vice president of Yoshinoya, said the company is looking to gain customers with different demographics than Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, which is most popular among low-income Asian and Latino populations.

“Asiana Grill is a totally different concept,” he said. “We’re looking for students, for business people and for more females. We’re also looking for more Caucasians, and maybe second- or third-generation Hispanics.”

Fast-casual restaurants are a small but rapidly growing segment of the U.S. restaurant industry. Last year, Chicago industry research firm Technomic Inc. found that fast-casual restaurants collectively grew sales by more than 8 percent when the industry overall grew by only about 3.5 percent.

But while Yoshinoya works to expand its customer base, it risks alienating existing customers, who tend to focus on price and frequently use coupons to make meals at Yoshinoya Beef Bowl even more affordable.

As the company goes higher on the income spectrum, it has work to do to elevate the reputation of the brand.

Paul Pruitt, principal at New School Restaurant Consulting in Los Angeles, said Asiana Grill could have trouble shaking a low-income image because of its association with the cheaper Yoshinoya Beef Bowl chain.

“There’s a hip factor that Yoshinoya might struggle with because they’re so equated with convenience and cost; there’s just nothing hip about them,” he said.

But Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, said that getting into the fast-casual restaurant category is necessary if Yoshinoya wants to attract a new generation of diners.

“I think they recognize that this brand has its place, but certainly the next generation of consumers are moving to fast casual, and if you want to go where the money is, you have to go into fast casual.”

The company worked for almost two years to develop the menu and marketing for Asiana Grill Yoshinoya.

On the surface, the concept seems to loosely follow the Chipotle Mexican Grill model, because of the way diners can customize food orders. To begin, a customer must choose between a plate, a soup, a salad or a sandwich. The cost of each meal is determined by the protein, which range in price from $6 to $9 and include sirloin steak, chicken breast, pork, shrimp, white fish, tofu, and chicken thigh. Then a choice of sauce must be made. Customers who order a plate or soup get a choice between white rice, brown rice and udon noodles. Sandwiches are served with sweet potato fries.

Fundamental differences

Although customization is familiar to Chipotle diners, Villareal said Asiana Grill Yoshinoya has some fundamental differences from the Denver chain.

“Chipotle is very good, and I admire them, but they precook everything,” he said. “We don’t precook. We put it on the grill to cook and within five minutes the meal should be ready.”

To convert locations to Asiana Grills, the company closed each Yoshinoya for about 45 days to gut and renovate the spaces, putting in open kitchens. Villareal said renovations cost the company less than building or leasing new ones.

But changing old Beef Bowl locations comes with its own share of problems. Villareal is concerned that the concept’s association with the lower-end chain could be enough to turn away would-be diners.

“Right now we see a lot of students coming to Asiana Grill and they say, ‘Oh, wow. This is Yoshinoya? Last year I never came here because I don’t like the food,’” he said.

To counter that impression, the company is offering students a 15 percent discount during the first few months after a store’s opening.

The company also made a special effort during opening weeks at each location to explain to customers when they walked in that Asiana Grill is not a Beef Bowl restaurant despite the Yoshinoya brand.

But Tristano said the company shouldn’t distance itself too much from the Yoshinoya name, because it has its benefits, too.

“Kids who’ve grown up with Yoshinoya might be looking for better quality and find it at this brand, and be comfortable because they knew it growing up,” he said. “There’s likely a positive there.”

Villareal said it’s also been a challenge to convince some customers who frequented the restaurants before the concept change that the food is worth the higher cost.

“When they come to Asiana Grill, they complain they don’t like it; it’s too expensive,” he said. “But we want to grow. It’s too early to tell if it’ll be a success, but we’re working on it every single day.”

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