The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


April 2014
Getting the Seal of Approval
Food and drink fair helps link distributors with US products
Custom Media

David Harris simply hoped to generate some interest in The Original Bagel Co. when he first signed up to take part in Foodex Japan 2014. Harris had no idea just how popular the products of his New Jersey-based company would prove on his first trip to Japan, and that they would get a ringing endorsement from the most influential American in the country on the first day of the event.

“Ambassador [Caroline] Kennedy came over to our stand and said she used to live in New York City,” Harris told the ACCJ Journal on the final day of the four-day show. “We talked, and she tried one of our plain bagels and seemed to enjoy it.

“Then suddenly, after they had moved on, her personal chef came back and said how excited she had been because the ambassador didn’t think she was going to be able to get a real bagel until she got back to New York again,” he added.

The ambassador’s seal of approval was echoed by everyone who sampled the company’s bagel varieties.

“We have had a very positive reaction and we very quickly learned what oishii [delicious] means,” Harris said.

“We are looking to export to Japan and we think there are opportunities here because the bagels that are made locally may look the same, but they are very different,” he explained. “They do not taste the same and they don’t have the same texture as ours, which are boiled so they’re crispy and authentic.”

The company already makes 65 million bagels a year for the domestic US market but is actively looking to access international markets.

“Our blueberry bagels have been really popular and we have seen local ones in stores here that use green tea or white chocolate, so there are other options that we can look into here,” he said.

“And yes, Japan is an expensive market to get into and the overheads would be high, but on the other hand, if we could land an account then I am sure we would get a lot of repeat business.”

US firms had an even greater presence at the largest and most important annual food and drink show in Japan this year, with 61 exhibitors across 80 booths at the Makuhari Messe event, including 22 that were completely new to the market, according to Steve Shnitzler, director of the US Agricultural Trade Office at the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo.

“This has probably been one of our most successful shows and we’re particularly pleased with the number of new-to-market companies here this time,” said Shnitzler. “And the results of our survey project that orders worth $24 million will be made in the next 12 months, while on-site sales came to $700,000.”

No fewer than five companies that specialize in organic products were taking advantage of the equivalency agreement that went into effect on January 1. The deal permits any foodstuff certified as organic in either the United States or Japan to be imported more freely into the other market.

Shnitzler added that the US section of the event was in a new location this year, close to the Canadian, Mexican, and South American booths, which had helped to underline to Japanese visitors the sheer “range and diversity of food that is available from the Western hemisphere, especially the United States.”

Every booth attracted a steady flow of visitors taste-testing the samples, but the irresistible combination of Sapporo-based microbrewery Ezo Beer Co. with Oregon’s Rogue Creamery attracted particular attention.

“We are the only US craft beer at the show and our collaboration with Rogue Creamery has taken us both to a whole new level,” said Ezo Beer President Phred Kaufman. “It’s just a beautiful marriage and the customers are excited.”

Rogue Creamery uses Ezo Beer in a number of its cheese products, such as the stout added to the curd for its mature cheddars, giving the final product a sweet, buttery flavor that retains hints of the beer.

Another favorite was the Smokey Blue, which Rogue Creamery President David Gremmels explained is smoked over a bed of hazelnut shells for 16 hours before being aged and cured for 30 days. Paired with Ezo Beer’s chocolate stout, the outcome is sublime.

Ezo Beer and Rogue Creamery already have a following in Japan, but a number of new companies were looking to get a foot in the door of what is potentially a hugely lucrative market.

“We are a new brand and Japan was the country we had in mind when we designed our health bars,” said Peter Guyer, chief executive officer of Toosum Healthy Foods LLC, which takes its name from the old English word “toothsome” [temptingly tasty].

“[The health bars] have low sweetness levels and although we only launched in September, we wanted to come here early to establish a presence,” Guyer said.

The gluten-free and non-GMO bars are high in fiber and contain no preservatives, making them ideal for everyone, including professionals in need of a healthy snack and mothers making school lunches for their children, Guyer explained.

According to Guyer, this sector of the food market is worth $12 billion a year worldwide and is growing at a remarkable 12 percent a year, making it a hugely attractive proposition.

“We have appointed a distributor and we are attracting interest from a retailer. We really think that Japan could be a $1 million-a-year market for us within the next three years,” he added.

Virtually every corner of the United States was represented at the event, including the native communities of Alaska, famed for their seafood.

“We are really looking to nail down an importer for black cod as the US market is not so strong at the moment,” said Everette Anderson, director of business development for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association.

“Last year we sold around one-and-a-half container-loads to Japan, but we know we have the product and we know the quality is high so we could sell a lot more here—we just need to get an importer,” said Anderson.
“But we also know that Japan is built on long-term relationships that take time to develop, and we’re happy to take that approach.”