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Japan’s Mitsui reroutes curry back to India as it ups consumer portfolio



Japanese trading major Mitsui & Co is diversifying beyond its traditional investments in industrial sectors such as steel, power infrastructure, chemicals and logistics to the retail and services in India, starting with an entry into the restaurant business. Mitsui, one of Japan’s largest sogo shosha — or general trading companies — which operates in 66 countries in businesses ranging from oil and natural gas to healthcare, is eyeing the consumer business as the new growth area in India and could also be looking at fresh food supplies to the upcoming entry into India of the 7-Eleven stores — the Japanese-owned, Dallas-headquartered chain of convenience stores which operates 69,000 outlets in 17 countries.

In its restaurant foray, Mitsui is partnering with Coco Ichibanya, the world’s largest chain of Japanese-style curry restaurants, to launch a string of outlets in India through a new 60:40 joint venture. Both partners plan to make a combined investment of approximately $3 million to directly own and operate outlets, and subsequently franchise the CoCoICHI brand throughout India, with the first store expected to open in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, early next year.

Mitsui is looking to expand its consumer business in India, according to Tamotsu Nomura, general manager of the retail business division at the company’s New Delhi head office. “The consumer business is an area of focus,” Nomura said, adding that for Ichibanya’s former president and current chairman, Toshiya Hamajima, not having restaurants in the birthplace of curry was a disappointment.

Curry travelled to Japan via a circuitous route, having been introduced by Britain there during the late nineteenth century, which has subsequently been tailored and adapted to Japanese tastes. Japanese curry is essentially a thick brown curry sauce that includes meat and vegetables, which is liberally spread over a bed of sticky rice. Widely regarded as a comfort food in Japan, the Indian venture would also stick to the Japanese template, but for the fact that it will use a vegetarian-friendly curry sauce that contains no animal fat and beef will not be on the menu. The pricing is likely to be aggressive, with a chicken katsu curry costing under Rs 500.

Ichibanya has 1,264 outlets of its famous chain in Japan, and another 180 restaurants across the UK, China, and South East Asia. The Mitsui-Ichibanya partnership is only for the Indian market, where Mitsui will handle everything from managing the business to finding franchisees to expand, while Ichibanya will take care of store operations and product development.

Apart from the investment in bringing the Japanese curry restaurant chain to India, Mitsui’s recent investments in India include a co-investment proposal with Mahindra Susten in distributed solar power projects, investments in GOQii, a preventive healthcare platform business in India and investments in TV shopping startup Naaptol.

Prasenjit Adhikari, CEO of Ichibanya India, said: “We will be leveraging our experience and networks in India, together with our strong capabilities in logistics and marketing, to supporting the launch of the venture in India.” Nomura did not offer a comment on reports about Mitsui’s plans on the 7-Eleven food supply business.