Keen competition has forced the operators of a Japanese restaurant, once considered among the city's best, to morph into a supplier of value lunch boxes.

Ariake was one of the first Japanese restaurants set up in Auckland in 1980 but was forced to shut two years ago after four years of losses.

In its heyday, Ariake catered aircraft meals for Air New Zealand and Japan Airlines and was host to many international visitors including Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako on their visit to New Zealand in 2002.

But manager Miyuki Sakairi said the increasing number of diners and eateries now offering cheap Japanese meals meant the only way to keep operating was by "going cheap".


So instead of the $30 bentos that Ariake once charged, the team - now trading as Ariake Five - are producing lunch boxes for schools, offices and convenience stores priced between $4 and $6.

Operating out of the Auckland International College kitchen in Avondale, the cheap bento menu includes karage chicken, teriyaki salmon and Japanese steak, items that were also on the old restaurant menu.

"The food business environment is very different now especially in Auckland where people are not only demanding for things to be cheap, but also high quality," Ms Sakairi said.

"It is not easy, but part of the reason we are able to do that is because our chefs working long hours, coming in early, and our manager also comes in even on his days off."

She rejected the suggestion that this was staff exploitation, but rather "typical Japanese work style".

"They don't mind staying late or coming early, and continuously strive to improve their cooking methods and skills," Ms Sakairi said.

To compete, downtown Asian cafes and diners are lowering food prices and coming up with promotions to keep customers.

Newly-opened Shamiana Indian Cafe is offering $5 Indian lunch box meals that include samosa, pakora, wedges and a drink.

Kebabs on Queen was the first to offer $5 kebabs and rice sets, and now most other Middle Eastern cafes have also reduced their kebab prices to match that.

BBQ Duck Cafe, a Hong Kong-style diner on Queen St, is offering happy hour prices - between 3pm and 5.30pm - where barbecue rice meals are being offered for $6.

Their daily lunch specials are $8.50, which comes with free soup and tea.

The series

The Immigration Act 1987 radically changed the criteria for migrant entry to New Zealand, resulting in a surge in people coming from non-traditional source countries. This week, the Herald looks at how these migrant communities have changed Auckland.

Monday: Population - the changes and how comfortable are we?
Yesterday: Religion - Christianity vs new religions
Today: Food - from caffe latte to teh tarik
Tomorrow: Sports - tapping migrant talent
Friday: Festivals - changing the way we celebrate.