How far can you take premiumisation? Apparently, pretty far, at least if New York’s Don Wagyu is anything to go by. This restaurant sells only one item: the wagyu katsu sando, a sandwich made from high-quality Japanese beef fried in panko crumbs. And the most expensive option costs $180. That’s £136 by today’s exchange rate, almost the same price as the Menu Prestige at three-Michelin-star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
What justifies this price tag? It’s made with Ozaki beef, bred on just a single farm in Miyazaki Prefecture. Only five head of cattle from this farm are exported to the US, and all of those go to Don Wagyu, according to the restaurant.
The men behind it, Derek Feldman and Samuel Clonts, previously offered a wagyu sando as part of the tasting menu at their Japanese restaurant Uchu, but decided the item was worth its very own venue.
If customers can’t quite justify splurging on the top-tier offering, there are also the cheaper A5 Miyazaki (A5 being the highest rating for wagyu, $80) and the positively budget washugyu (a cross between Black Angus and Japanese Tajima beef, $28).
So what exactly goes into these pricey food-to-go bites? And what’s the appeal?
Even if you consider that the $180 also includes nori-coated French fries and a pickle, it seems like a pretty niche market. But wagyu sandos are not just a flash in the pan. In the past year, spots in LA, New York and Boston have all introduced versions. Wagyumafia, one of the vendors of the souped-up sarnie in Japan, is also hoping to find a location in NYC this year.
The concept fits nicely into the growing experimentation in the States with so-called ‘fine casual,’ which offers convenience and pared-back service with gourmet ingredients.
Co-founder Feldman told Bloomberg: “I wanted to do wagyu katsu sandos instead of a steak house, because I see this industry moving towards a type of high-end, fine-casual dining where quality comes first.
“I love sitting for a long omakase experience, but that can’t be an everyday experience. I wanted to make that experience more accessible. Luxury doesn’t necessarily have to mean a three-hour meal. Sometimes it can mean just having some of the best, rarest beef in the world.”
That might fly in New York’s Financial District, where Don Wagyu is located, but does it make sense in the UK? It’s notable that just last month the Guardian reported that Iceland’s No Bull vegan burger is outselling its wagyu (admittedly not made from quite so prestigious beef).
What do you reckon Sparkie, does it meat British consumer needs?
I don't think wagyu is understood particularly well by the general public in the UK, at least compared to America. Due to the lack of understanding, outside of the people who enjoy fine dining I see it being mocked as pretentious and pointless.
There is definitely an air of premiumisation going on right now, but it is the authentic, novel cuisines paired with healthy offerings that are leading that premium market. Actual premium ingredients are likely to be a tougher sell outside of the smaller market that understands its value.
The American market for it seems to be founded on mis-information though, as I have seen a fair amount of push back due to poor quality products such as burgers with a low wagyu percentage being marketed as a premium product. It is a similar story for the steaks in the UK: there are no shortage of restaurants that use them and charge a small fortune for them but without the quality rating – it makes the people who do know what it is wary of purchasing it.
Overall, I think it will take some educational initiatives to garner a wider market in the UK for ingredients like wagyu.