Tokyo Treat: The Whacky Side of Japanese eCommerce Subscription

~ 7 min read | September 11

During my recent vacation in Montreal, I happened to walk past a Japanese Ramen bar. A movement inside the bar pulled me back and made me stick to the window of the bar, like a lizard, completely in awe.

It was a line sequence with three chefs who prepared the perfect bowl of ramen. One chef kneaded the dough to exact consistency and stretched the noodles with his bare hands until the strings were thin and consistent throughout. He then dropped it into a vat of boiling water.

The next chef was in charge of picking the boiled noodles and dropping it into a bowl filled with broth. He passed the bowl to the third chef who filled the concoction with different vegetables, chicken and eggs.

I saw this about 10 times, without a hint of boredom, till my folks summoned me inside to eat the ramen that they ordered. And boy, was it delectable!

It was an art of perfection.

The Japanese revere their food and follow a ritualistic eating pattern. There is a lot of technique and a great attention to detail is paid to the preparation, presentation and eating – so much so that it is considered a science.

Then there is Genghis Khan Caramel, which tastes of barbecued lamb. And then there is Unagi Coca Cola, which is an eel-flavored drink. These are just two examples of the other side of the Japanese food culture, one that is inventive and downright crazy.

It is manic. And it’s all over Japan.

For instance, Coke Japan comes out with a product every few weeks to see what sticks. Water Salad is one of their most popular products. So what is it that fuels these wild and varied flavors, something that is atypical when compared to other countries?

We spoke with the Tokyo Treat team, a subscription-based service that delivers limited edition Japanese snacks and candies of all kinds, about the demand and careful curation of insane flavors and the Japanese business culture.

Tokyo Treat was founded by Ayumi Chikamoto, after noticing that Japanese snacks sold abroad were quite unlike the ones sold in Japan: they were modified to suit the local taste.

She talks about the Japanese flair for different tastes. “The quality of food is very good here. So people keep expecting new flavors from the manufacturers every time. A generic chocolate or strawberry flavor does not appeal to our people, as much as they dig new and unique flavors.”

“Basically, the competition between one manufacturer and another is very fierce, because of a weak economy. So people try to be on top of competition, and the only way they can do it is by producing flavors every week,” Ayumi adds, when asked about what drives this production in Japan.

Tokyo Treat takes this madness to the world, all the way from Japan.

Testing Tastes – “The mind knows not what the tongue wants”

In one of our earlier posts on SaaS Segmentation, we speak about a horizontal approach to segmentation because different people find value in different aspects of a product.

In the same post, we cited Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant TED talk about different tastes, where he speaks about Howard Moskowitz, a genius psychophysicist, who was commissioned to find the perfect level of sweetness for Diet Pepsi across varied audiences. It was through this experiment that the iconic line, “There is no perfect Pepsi, only perfect Pepsis,” came alive.

Howard believes, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants,” a fundamental premise that people cannot always explain what they want.

And it is this revelation about the human behavior that Tokyo Treat experiments with – curating new and unique flavors for their customers.

There is a method in this madness. Tokyo Treat uses an elaborate and helpful hand guide that gives you a glimpse of Japan and its culture, through the snacks.

We try to make the snacks more enjoyable. So, even if we include flavors that may not be well known to people in Japan, we try to explain the cultural background behind the drink, so, even though people feel strange about the drink, they would appreciate the cultural influence behind it.

Rising Above The Din

Business in Japan is nurtured by personal relationships. “Traditionally worldover, the retailers would not be able to deal with the myriad of manufacturers directly, because of the volumes. So it gets passed via a wholesaler who deals with retailers and manufacturers.”

“But in Japan, it works in the form of favors. So even though you may have great volumes, the manufacturer may say, ‘Hey, you should deal with my old friend here’, and this is because of the relationship,” Ayumi explains.

For Tokyo Treat, this business culture is part of their DNA.

A lot of these snacks are not available outside Japan due to the limited quantity and the way the distribution channel is set up. For example, to release a candy for public consumption, every manufacturer needs to adhere to the lengthy and slow application procedures (for each candy) designated by the local government.

This does not cope well with the monthly changing Japanese snacks trend, especially for limited edition products with limited quantities.“We are here to tackle that distribution problem by distributing directly to our members from Tokyo, Japan. Not only you can enjoy fresh and newest candies but you also get more for the price because there’s no middleman (importer, exporter, etc.) involved,” says Ayumi.

Tokyo Treat is not  a first-mover in the Japanese snacks subscriptions space and has some heavy competition. We ask how Tokyo Treat tries to stand out amidst the crowd.

She says, “Being a late-mover, we had to move fast and get the word out. We collaborated with Youtubers to gain the initial traction. The promotions were effective and after several promotions, we were in a position where we constantly receive dozens of inquiries every day for collaboration.” Tokyo Treat believes that offline partnerships are also equally important. “We partner with Japan Post to make our shipping costs lower such that we are able to offer free worldwide shipping for all the plans. This was unprecedented and has become our advantage when being benchmarked with other competitors,” she says.

Low-Tech Subscription Box, That Delivers Greater Customer Experience

How tech-dependent is Tokyo Treat? “When we first started out the business, we did not want to think about technology at all,” explains Ayumi. “So we actually started out with WooCommerce, before. They have the subscription plugin that we can use so that you can manage your subscription. But it was probably the worst mistake that we have ever done.”

Ayumi explains further, “Because, this business model focuses more on the distribution channel. There are so many competitors out there. Our advantage is being able to procure products that others can’t easily, like the Sakura Pepsi. That’s why we don’t have to put ourselves into trouble, tinkering over our service, figuring out why this piece of code doesn’t work.”

Tokyo Treat wanted their business to be as low-tech and automated as possible. “The business should be IT-burden free. That’s why we moved to Chargebee. We also want to be able to integrate with a lot of services out there. The API that Chargebee provides, makes it easier for us to integrate with different services.”

Ayumi believes in Facebook’s motto – ‘Move fast and break things’. “Most startups do not have the privilege of having unlimited capital, thus you will be competing within time constraints in the same space. The faster you ship your product/alliances/bug fixes, etc., the more you will be in advantage.”

With customers across the USA, the UK and Asia, Tokyo Treat promises to be fun, flavorful, experimental, and much more.

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Divya Ganesan

Internal Communications at Chargebee