The iconic meal deal graces most Brits’ daily routines but have we ever stopped to ponder whether we deserve more than soggy bread for £3.50? Timothy Tung and Jasmine Faulkner explore how we can learn a thing or two from Japan’s Konbini.

The timeless trio of a chilled sandwich, a bag of crisps, and a fizzy drink – a combo that has become a steadfast habit of the UK masses and has been perfected by Konbini.

The quintessential lunchtime deal has existed for nearly four decades. Yet, for some, the experience can be as stale as the bread itself.

The pharmacy chain Boots is hailed as the pioneer of the concept, first offering the affordable combo nationwide in 1985. 38 years since its creation, however, a meal deal looks more or less the same.

Why settle for meal deals stuck in a culinary time warp, while on the other side of the world, lunch breaks are the highlight of people’s day? Convenience stores in Japan, also known as Konbini are doing things right.

While Konbini may present familiar cold food options like sandwiches and onigiri – those delightful fillings wrapped in perfectly shaped rice triangles – what truly captivates the masses are their hot, ready-to-eat meals. With a simple pop into the in-store microwave, these dishes beckon hungry souls from afar.

Konbini meal deals
The shelves of 7/11 in Japan

Those nutritious and fulfilling packed lunches, also known as bento, are also affordable. Chicken katsu curry is sold for 591 yen (£3.47), roughly the same price of a Tesco meal deal with a Clubcard nowadays. 

Bento boxes are also a very popular option. Picture this: a chicken katsu curry ready in 45 seconds, priced at a mere 519 yen (£3.47), less than the price of a Tesco meal deal.

Next to the food aisle are racks of hot bottled tea and canned coffee stored in a warmer for 138 yen (£0.81) each, perfect during colder months.

bento box in japan
Bento Box in Japan

“I felt like a kid in a candy store the first time I went into a Konbini, which is very conveniently located at the arrival hall at Tokyo Narita Airport. I have definitely put on serval pounds of weight because of Konbini!”, said Jay Allen, a software engineer who lived in Tokyo.

Family Mart, Lawsons, and 7-11 are the most common Japanese convenience stores market. Together, they represent the majority of the 56,000 shops from the southernmost Okinawa to Hokkaido up north.

Jay recalled, “Ah, it is so good, especially the pancakes with maple syrup in the 7-11 and their seasonal-limited snacks. I remember American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once told a famous story that the first thing he would do when he got into the country was to head to Lawsons and buy an egg salad sandwich.

“Pre-made food in Japan actually does not suck,” Jay said, “It doesn’t look like the stuff you see in Sainsbury’s in the UK or 7-11 in the US, where you look at the hotdogs and they look like they have been on the shelves for seven days.”

“Seven days? More like seven years to me,” says Noah Oskow, a professional translator who also co-authors Unseen Japan, a website that reports current events in Japan, with Jay. 

“In Japan, I really appreciate the staff asking whether you want them to help you to reheat bento as you pay for your food”, Noah continues. “The only word I can use to describe Konbini is amazing.”

While UK shops may not be as glamorous as their Japanese counterparts, there are some things that British supermarkets are doing that Kobini is not. 

Here, we have a traffic light system warning customers conscious about health if the food item has a high amount of sugar or fat, but the label is not present in Konbini bento

Jack Lawal, a part time research assistant in London said, “There are great vegan options here in the UK, our meal deals do really cater to people with plant-based diets.” 

Itsu noodles

Big supermarkets have been offering international food as part of their meal deal for many years, with sushi, pakoras, and bhajis available. Now, Tesco has taken it up a notch with their new premium meal deals teaming up with Asian-inspired brands such as Itsu and YO! Sushi. 

Jack believes Britain has a better retail strategy to attract people to buy meal deals, saying: “You can get normally expensive protein shakes, energy drinks or smoothies at a much cheaper price as part of the meal deal.”

However, the British Sandwich & Food to Go Association found meal deal business is still 20% lower than in 2019. Due to the recent cost of living and rivalry in hot lunchtime alternatives such as Pret. Are meal deals potentially on life support?

Let’s challenge British supermarkets to seize the reins and learn from the culinary wonders of Japan. Introducing in-shop microwaves would be the first step in the right direction. Imagine, a future where your £3.50 convenience meets delicious satisfaction. After all, it is not 1985 anymore.