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Frozen noodle vending machines boost business for Japan's Ringer Hut restaurant chain

The vending machine placed outside the Iidabashi Higashi-guchi outlet of Ringer Hut is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroki Masuda)

TOKYO -- Ringer Hut, a restaurant chain specializing in Nagasaki champon noodle dishes, is pushing ahead with the installation of vending machines selling frozen versions of its products for people to savor at home.

    The chain hopes the machines will help boost sales and offset the negative impact of the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible. So far, the machines have done better than expected, and the chain has announced the installation of the vending machines outside 26 Ringer Hut outlets as of the end of 2021.

    The large, yellow vending machines, with a height of 1.8 meters, width of 1 meter and depth of 80 centimeters, featuring the chain's "R" logo, stand out even from a distance. The machines sell six kinds of frozen products developed for people to enjoy at home, including "Nagasaki Champon" and "Nagasaki Sara Udon" noodles and "Chahan" fried rice -- all priced at 450 yen each -- and sets of 12 gyoza dumplings, priced at 350 yen per set.

    A vending machine selling six types of frozen Ringer Hut dishes features several buttons for its popular "Nagasaki Champon" product, outside the Iidabashi Higashi-guchi outlet of Ringer Hut in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroki Masuda)

    The idea for the vending machines came from a restaurant manager. While pouring efforts into take-out food amid the coronavirus pandemic, the manager thought, "Other companies sell their products in vending machines; we could easily do the same."

    On June 18, 2021, Ringer Hut set up a vending machine outside the entrance of its Sakai Mozu outlet in the Osaka Prefecture city of Sakai. In one week, the vending machine sold four times the amount of frozen products that were sold inside the restaurant, and sales have been increasing since.

    In response to the machine's good performance, Ringer Hut is increasing the number of its vending machines. It picked out 30 of its approximately 600 outlets in Japan suited to operating the machines, and in mid-October it decided to place the machines in five locations in the Kanto area in eastern Japan where it could expect good sales. They included the Iidabashi Higashi-guchi outlet in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward and the Kampachi-dori Shimura outlet in the capital's Itabashi Ward. The company subsequently announced the installation of more machines, bringing the total number to 26 including the Sakai outlet as of the end of 2021.

    "Nagasaki Champon" dishes make up 30% of the machines' sales, while the "Nagasaki Sara Udon" and "Gyoza" items each make up about 20% of sales. The company says the machines sell around 30 to 40 frozen items per day at each outlet.

    Around 20% of sales come from nighttime users making purchases after the restaurants have closed. Hiroshi Nakamura, head of the business administration department of Ringer Hut Japan Co., commented, "This 20% is big. Although the vending machines are big and yellow and stand out, we didn't expect people to go out of their way to come and buy products after the restaurants had closed. I wonder if the unique characteristic of vending machines, of being able to make purchases anytime you like has had an influence." As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the fact that vending machines do not require face-to-face or other direct contact has also apparently been a factor.

    Due to the impact of shortened business hours because of the coronavirus crisis, Ringer Hut's consolidated sales for the financial year ending in February 2021 fell to 34 billion yen (approx. $293.5 million), representing a drop of about 30% compared to the previous year. It registered an operating loss of about 5.4 billion yen (approx. $46.6 million), compared to a profit of 1.5 billion yen (approx. $12.9 million) the previous year.

    To battle the tough business climate, the chain boosted the number of its outlets handling deliveries to 360, far more than before the pandemic, and set up counters at its outlets exclusively for take-out orders. As a result, the number of users besides those dining in rose to four times the level seen before the pandemic. The chain says it plans to increase the number of vending machines in 2022 as well.

    As the restaurant industry continues to face a tough battle with no end to the coronavirus pandemic in sight, it appears that efforts to restore business performance will continue.

    (Japanese original by Hiroki Masuda, Digital News Center)

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