clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Like a Kid in a Japanese Convenience Store

Conbini are a way of life in Japan. Now, chefs are bringing their katsu sandos, egg salads, and onigiri stateside

The prepared foods counter at Peach Mart
Alex Staniloff/Eater

In Japan, the convenience store (or conbini) is more than just a sporadically used urban amenity, visited for snacks, beer, and slushies — it’s a neighborhood institution, offering everything from banking and photocopy services to bento boxes and clean restrooms. It’s starkly different than the spartan North American equivalent: convenient for beer and snacks, but often more of a stopgap between visits to a take-out joint or an actual grocery store.

Other countries like South Korea and Taiwan have similarly beefed-up convenience stores, although Japan arguably has the most engrained mini-mart culture. As countless tourists to Japan have discovered, the stores merit a detour in and of itself (although in a city like Tokyo, that’s hardly necessary, since it can seem like there’s one, most likely a 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, or Lawson, on almost every block). For just a few hundred yen (under $5), you can get crispy, juicy karaage (fried chicken) or a delectable egg salad sandwich served on pillowy milk bread, ready to unwrap and eat.

Now, it would appear that the ever-tasty, ultra-reliable approach of the conbini has won fans in North America, as a smattering of chefs and business owners are attempting to replicate those convenience stores — or at least their pre-prepared culinary options.

Los Angeles chef Daniel Son is one of those, with his pop-up Katsu Sando centered entirely around katsu, a fried pork cutlet sandwich that’s a conbini staple. Elsewhere in LA, the aptly named daytime-only restaurant Konbi offers conbini-inspired egg salad and katsu sandwiches. Chefs as big as David Chang are getting in on the action — his newest venture, Peach Mart, is one of few cheap eats options at New York’s ultra-luxury Hudson Yards development and blends elements of Korean and Japanese convenience stores: Beyond the shelves stocked with Hi-Chew candy and Pocky sticks, a kitchen puts together potato salad sandos on fluffy milk bread and crisp, juicy chicken katsu cutlets. At a time when North America’s appetite for Japanese food is arguably at its peak — from cocktail bars to Wagyu sandos to the nation’s beloved ramen chains — the ultra-accessible approach of the conbini seems like the natural next step.

Conbini have been a staple of Japanese life for a few decades — they proliferated in the ’70s when Japan’s densely populated cities made them viable, and a culture of long, late work hours helped them draw customers well into the evening. Son, who spent time working in Tokyo, was one of those late-night clients who used conbini as a lifeline to quality food. “I literally had five hours of sleep every night while working at a kaiseki restaurant,” he says. “And the only time that I had [to eat] was like 15 minutes to grab something that would pretty much keep me alive. Places like the conbini, for me, were a very reliable source of a quick eat, but without sacrificing quality.”

In Portland, Oregon, Kana Hinohara Hanson and Gabe Rosen, co-owners of the daytime-only “Japanese deli” Giraffe Goods, are serving sandwiches borrowed from the conbini mold, along with a selection of Japanese pastries, bento boxes, curry plates, and snacks. Rosen, formerly the owner of Biwa izakaya, which closed in June 2018, made a move towards a fast-casual operation with Giraffe, located inside miscellaneous import store Cargo. The counter’s egg salad sandwich has quickly attained a sort-of celebrity status locally. Hinohara Hanson says she was inspired by the everyday Japanese food she ate growing up — food she says is rarely seen in a restaurant context in Portland — and acknowledges that she’s “elevated” the egg sando a little by using a less-industrial type of bread than would be found in conbini. But like Son, she notes that this kind of conbini food is financially accessible to almost anybody by its very nature.

“A lot of Japanese food is about the simplicity of ingredients, and the only way you can make it more high-end is by using the best of the best ingredients,” she says. “But even then for the vegetable dishes, I just don’t see how you could really get it [to a high price point].”

For Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, CEO of the Momofuku Group (which includes the three-month-old Peach Mart), the point of opening a version of the conbini was to retool familiar items like the egg salad sandwich. And like a Japanese conbini, Peach Mart throws in some actual convenience, selling Listerine, condoms, and phone chargers alongside Korean and Japanese snacks. “We’re nothing compared to the real thing in Korea and Japan,” Zabar Mariscal says. “It’s 400 square feet, we couldn’t offer everything — so we asked ourselves, ‘What is the best salty snack? What is the best sweet one?’ Then there’s things like Advil, Tide pens, umbrellas, all those things you kind of buy in a panic; I don’t even know if there is [another] place to buy Advil or a tampon in Hudson Yards.”

Operations like Peach Mart or Giraffe Goods (which also offers a selection of Japanese grocery items) aren’t the first time the conbini has been brought over the Pacific. In 2004, one of Japan’s biggest conbini operators, FamilyMart, attempted to get a foothold in California. It opened around 20 stores named Famima (enthusiastically stylized as “Famima!!”) in the Los Angeles area, with dreams of opening over 200 locations altogether. It never came close: Most stores didn’t last five years, and the company killed off the very few remaining Famimas in 2015.

Despite its fairly rapid flop, Famima wasn’t wholly unloved: Critic Jonathan Gold, then at LA Weekly, was warmly appreciative of its broad snack selection. (He did find the prepared food “hit-and-miss,” with “slimy” Vietnamese rolls and “pretty bad” pasta.)

The idea of a higher-end convenience store didn’t lure Angelenos at that time — Son says he used to go to Famima, but that he understood why many others didn’t care for it. “There was a sort of un-relatability... you were confused about what the place was doing. They were basically a 7-Eleven, but they didn’t necessarily elevate or even match up to the par of a Japanese conbini.”

It also isn’t easy to replicate a full-scale conbini and fill it with Japanese products. In Japan, the industrial scale of companies like 7-Eleven and FamilyMart makes the distribution of everything from snacks to pre-prepared food fairly streamlined. That’s not necessarily the case for a standalone business in North America.

“It’s actually pretty crazy,” says Linda Dang, who co-owns Toronto’s Sukoshi Mart, a Japanese-style convenience store with two locations in the city. “We work with a lot of direct suppliers that supply all the snacks for us. Having 1,000 or 2,000 snacks alone definitely becomes a thing where you have to learn how to manage your inventory really well.”

It makes sense, then, that the North American pseudo-conbinis have started small: Sukoshi focused mostly on imported products to start out, and has begun branching out into preparing its own food now that it has more than one location. Katsu Sando went the other direction, starting with a pop-up focused strictly on sandwiches, and is only now preparing to open a permanent location with more conbini-style food, including curries and onigiri, later this year. Son says that by keeping things simple, Katsu Sando is well-placed to make conbini fare land for Angelenos, in a way that Famima didn’t.

“I feel like with what we’re doing we’re kind of bridging the gap,” Son says. “American palates have definitely evolved and people are looking for authentic versions of things that they can get — people are just understanding and learning more about these things.”

Up in Portland, it seems that Hinohara Hanson at Giraffe Goods would agree, adding that the rise of relatively casual izakayas was likely a gateway for popularizing even more casual conbini fare. “I’d say 10 to 15 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to open the store, people wouldn’t have understood what everyday foods in Japan are actually like,” she says.

So if egg salad sandos, onigiri, and Japanese curries start cropping up around America, one could argue that the beloved conbini is experiencing momentary trendiness this side of the Pacific. Yet it’s likely the sign of something bigger: that truly casual Japanese food — the grab-and-go bites eaten every day in Japan — are hitting the American mainstream.

Every Amazing Thing You’ve Heard About Japanese Convenience Stores Is True [E]

Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.