Listing posts

I'm not MIA

jason

While I was preparing to move office I got incredibly busy, and then one day my laptop decided not to start. So I sent it off for repairs on Tuesday. I expect it will be ready early next week.

I haven't gotten my desktop machine at the office fully functional yet, alas. The newly set up machine decided not to completely boot, and when I reinstalled Windows, the system freezes when I get the message "You need to activate Windows to log in. Do you want to activate windows?"

If the machine were only kind enough not to freeze and let me answer, I'd be happy to deal with it. In the meantime I'm borrowing my friend's laptop for a few minutes at a time.

It looks like one of my customers I've been waiting on for ages will finally pay their bill. That makes me happy, but I am still so cash-impaired that I'm probably going to have to take on some part-time work or a temp job in tech in order to sustain myself. I don't want to be in that position, but if it makes it possible for me to continue building my business it's a reasonable tradeoff.

 

 

Moving office is no fun

jason

I’ve been trying to make moving into my new commercial space a gradual process, but it turns out that even moving a load or two of things each day for the last week wasn’t fast enough to get everything over there in time for my intended Wednesday deadline.

I’ll probably get most of the remaining stuff, sans desk and printer, over there tonight. But my home is still a bit of a mess… I need to make it at least somewhat presentable by tomorrow, when a friend of a friend will start renting out my extra room.

Maybe by midnight I’ll get to the required vacuuming…

Jetlag and demos don't mix

jason

Last night I finally slept sometime after 6am, and managed to get out of bed about 5 hours later. The previous night I slept much earlier but didn’t get up until midday. Alternating between sleeplessness and oversleeping is not much fun.

I did demos at the Seattle Uwajimaya this weekend, but I’m afraid I got a late start both days. Beyond that, my charisma quotient seemed to be down a few notches below normal, and I was probably not infrequently speaking slightly incoherently.

Food isn’t going so well… I’m eating erratically. Sometimes snacking madly, and sometimes eating too little at normal mealtimes.

I had a pleasant meal tonight… an experimental pasta dish, using a yuzu miso cream sauce and some yu-tsai, something like nanohana (basically, some lightly bitter stalky greens with pretty little flowers) Actually it probably sounds completely insane, but this is not your usual fusion restaurant overkill; I just used the miso in service of salt, waking up the pasta with the fermented complexity of miso and hint of yuzu. Plus it was a good excuse to see what Saison Factory’s products can be used for… I have a bunch of fun stuff from Japan I got as samples and wanted to look at ways to use them to see if they might be serviceable in upscale food retailers in the US… I like the things I’ve tried in the shops in Japan… though it’s a hard call if it would work in a wholesale business model.

Tonight it seems like many of the contacts I met in Asia have started touching base by email. I guess that will accelerate over the next few days. I’m also trying to nail down some other things at the same time. My sanity is decreasing, though, as I worry about finances, time, and so on.

Looking forward

jason

Except for necessary moments of sleep, my first two full days back were all business. Jetlag has caused me more trouble than usual… two nights ago I slept less than three hours, and last night I unintentionally slept more than 10. I think what I really need is to find a way to do all of my work from Asia, so I never have to come back and recover from the East-bound jetlag that usually overpowers me when I return home.

I met with various folks this week, mostly looking to the future, but occasionally dealing with things that should have been settled a few weeks back.

I’ve been trying to work with a few local folks to expand my business without taking on so much inventory risk. So this week, I had arranged a meeting with one of my existing customers and a local restaurant owner, with whom I’ve been discussing a range of healthy ready-to-eat meals. Initially she was only talking about offering her vegetarian meat alternatives as standalone items, just seasoned enough to be incorporated into other dishes. But there is a bit of a surplus of vendors of such things, so I had recommended going a step further and offering something more in the ready-to-eat category that could be comfortably reheated; this meeting involved presenting some of the intended line-up to a customer and obtaining some feedback.

The meeting went fine, though for various reasons I’m sure it would not be smart to publicly reveal, I’m inclined to prefer a different customer as the first outlet to place the foods.

Thursday I took the keys to an office and storage facility just north of my home. It’s not terribly expensive. On one hand, I am very worried about cashflow right now, but I have essentially run out of room at home so I also have little choice. It turns out I also have a friend of a friend who will be coming to the US and renting one of my rooms, so most of the financial sting will be taken out.

I’m hoping I can successfully clear out all of the stuff that should actually be in the office space in time for my flatmate to arrive.

Simultaneously I have to figure out a way to finish some business plan revisions and a proposal to one of my suppliers, who wants me to draft an additional business plan for a small retail project. Taking care of all of this, and sales and bookkeeping too, will be a pleasant source of stress for the next few weeks.

Last days

jason

I ended up scheduling a little more time for this trip than necessary. I had anticipated seeing a more public venue in Japan where the dragon beard candy company was planning to sell their product, so that I could witness, and hopefully learn from, a Japanese-style product launch. Their retail partner apparently recently rescheduled the event, so unfortunately I won’t get a chance to see it.

However, changing my return flight would have been more expensive than taking advantage of the remaining time. My original plan was to go to Shiga prefecture to do some ceramics hunting, as it’s one of the major ceramics centers I still haven’t visited and a substantial influence on Mashiko ware. Shigaraki ware tends to be fairly rustic, like Mashiko-yaki, so I had hoped to see more. Unfortunately, scheduling the trip turned out to be more complicated than I had hoped, so Hiromi arranged for a quick trip to the western coast of Shizuoka prefecture’s Dogashima, a small island in Izu.

This area produces a lot of wasabi products, and some citrus fruits like dekopon and a local variety of mikan (mandarin orange); I would guess that daidai could be found somewhere nearby in the right time of year.

We stayed in a hot springs inn with an oceanfront rotenburo (outdoor bath). Because of the structural design all of the rooms also featured ocean views… essentially the hotel was built against a cliff.

On the way from Yokohama, initially clear skies gave way to clouds and unexpected stretches of heavy snow, and clear skies returned as we approached our destination. Izu was chillier than Tokyo had been in the morning, and gusty winds limited our outdoor adventures. As we reached the hotel, the winds rose to a level that made opening the car doors a fair challenge.

We tried to brave the weather and enjoy the rotenburo before sunset. The men’s hot springs baths were set roughly 15 meters from the water, but as the waves crashed against the walls below, a salty spray would occasionally reach my lips as I looked out into the water. Just as sunset approached, one of the kashi-kiri onsen rooms became available, which was just above the women’s rotenburo. Hiromi had reported that one of the women’s baths was constantly besieged by cold ocean water and remained mostly unused. As some of the stronger waves launched columns of seaweed onto the roof below us, I could imagine it wouldn’t have been very comfortable to be in the way of some of the heavier spray.

Dinner was the usual ryokan style extravagant presentation, though the house seemed a little heavy-handed with their katsuo-dashi, enough that even Hiromi took notice, though she gleefully consumed the various crustacea and bivalves she was presented.

I hadn’t met Hiromi’s parents before this trip, and my awkward Japanese made conversation a bit challenging, but everything was pleasant enough. We stopped at her home on the way to and from Izu, as she needed to handle arrangements with the car.

Monday night Hiromi and I found a pleasant little Korean restaurant located atop a small Korean deli/grocery. Though it probably cost about twice as much as it would in Korea, we ate a perfectly suitable meal of kimchi dubu jjigae, pa chijimi, and chap chae, accompanied by a small bottle of low-alcohol Korean-style nigori-zake (unfiltered sake), a plate of small vegetable side dishes, and followed by some yuja-cha and soo jeong gwa. It was roughly 6000 yen, which is quite modest for Japan, along the lines of an okonomiyaki restaurant.

Juggling my luggage on the return turned out to be a bigger problem than I had hoped. In spite of asking most companies I met with at FoodEx to send me samples by post, I still ended up with a few bottles of yuzu juice, sudachi juice, and various other samples, as well as a couple of items for personal consumption I bought at Izu. Worse, the pamphlets I accumulated took up an obscene amount of space, most of which I actually wanted to keep.

I don’t think I’ll get enough sleep on the airplane, so returning to Seattle time is likely to be as painful as usual, alas.

Tokyo FoodEx 2005, Day 4

jason

On the last day at FoodEx I followed up with a couple of companies I had some interest in, and then I made a few other discoveries.

I can’t say that there was one product I would absolutely have to have this time, but I found several that I’m quite interested in and I think I’ll try to work something out with a few of the companies I ran into.

Because it was the end of the show for me, I spent more time cruising the non-Asian booths, and I found a suitably gimmicky nightclub drink product from an Austrian company. The product comes in metal tubes, in either alcoholic “cocktails” or non-alcoholic “energy drinks.” The taste of the cranberry-flavored “Wodka” cocktail isn’t quite my style, but the overall concept seems very clever and suitable for clubs trying to get some sort of attention. I chatted in German with one of the company representatives for a little while, and realized how sloppy my German is these days.

Actually one thing I’m happy about is that I think I’ve found some items with reasonable shelf-life at modest costs which still have decent style and interesting origin stories. Some nice cookies from Malaysia, some nicely-packaged sauces from Thailand, and various other things that seem to have good market potential without steering too far from my company vision.

By 4:10 pm most exhibitors started packing everything and departing. I was surprised that the 4:30 finishing time really meant “no later than 4:30”. Of course the trains were completely insane for the next couple of hours… I sat in a pastry shop for about an hour and I still couldn’t get a seat on the train from Makuhari station.

For dinner Hiromi and I stopped at a restaurant I really enjoyed a few years ago called Yuuan in Nishi-Shinjuku. It was still good food, but not quite the transcendent experience I remember from last time I was there. We had a nice “white sesame oil” nabe with very soft tofu and various spring vegetables, a simple tomato appetizer, and a pumpkin croquette, and some mountain vegetable tempura. The last time I was there they had their own house-infused liqueurs but these were apparently absent this time.

Hoteres 2005, Day 3

jason

I tried to compress seeing all of the Tokyo Hotel, Restaurant and Catering show into one day this year. It was quite similar to last year, but I did find some excellent suppliers of Japanese tableware for restaurant and gift markets… some very stylish bamboo tokkuri from a couple of makers, some nice contemporary nurimono (lacquerware), and some Singapore-made furnace glass tableware well suited for trendy Asian restaurants.

Nothing too exciting in the equipment arena this year; maybe I saw everything imaginable last year. The really cool “clean fryer” I saw last year was apparently absent and I didn’t see anything that was totally new to me, save a variation of the self-shaking wok which featured a corkscrew stirring mechanism.

One company showed off a nifty line of teas produced in China, containing hand-tied teas with flowers that “bloom” as the tea leaves expand; the product is nearing a launch in Japan. The teas are all about the drama of the flowers revealing themselves; the exhibition design had them presented in wine glasses or glass teapots. I’ll get some samples when their packaging design is ready to go next month. It seems like a clever concept, though I think they are targeting about a $2.50–3.00 retail price per bundle (essentially one pot), so that may be a very narrow market in the U.S. In Japan, they are targeting the bridal and banquet markets.

I’ve been facing a little bit of pain in my legs and back the last couple of days… when I left for Hong Kong I swapped out my worn-out custom orthotics for the standard ones in my usually comfy Ecco loafers, and I think my feet aren’t happy about the sudden change.

Tomorrow I think I’ll just spend the whole day at FoodEx, where I’d like to follow up on some things that I looked at previously.

One item that I received a small sample of turned out to be more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. It’s a wheat-free and soy-free “soy sauce” that tastes very similar to the real thing. It’s apparently meant to satisfy a particularly narrow range of folks allergic to wheat or soy proteins. It’s made with compressed sesame seeds, barley and salt instead of soy beans, wheat and salt. I used it in tonight’s dinner and it worked quite well; it had a pleasant taste, and was functionally equivalent to soy sauce as a seasoning. I should find out if the manufacturer is willing to export it. It wasn’t made by the usual soy sauce suspects (Kikkoman, Yamasa, etc.)

FoodEx 2005, Day 2: The Japanese section, and business dinner

jason

I managed to get a little misdirected on the train this morning, but I wasn’t the only one confused by the ambiguities of the Keiyo-sen; a Japanese couple opposite me was equally bewildered to be moving nowhere closer to Kaihin-makuhari station. I think I had this problem once last year, so I should know better, but it was comforting to know it was easy to be confused.

The other couple turned out to be running a wine importing company, so we chatted a little bit about our businesses and exchanged business cards. They seem to mostly sell German and French wines, at wholesale and in a little retail shop.

Since I focused on the Japan section today, I got to see that in fact the Japanese specialty food trade doesn’t change nearly as rapidly as I had previously thought. In spite of an apparently neverending stream of variations of bottled drinks, most of what I saw this year was, in one form or another, in last year’s show also. But I did see some good stuff, including a vinegar manufacturer and some nice foods from Hokkaido. I was kind of interested in a sea vegetable called “umi-budou” (sea grapes) which have a unique briny taste; alas, they don’t travel well. Some of the local producers of foods might have some potential with high end venues in the U.S., though sometimes the packaging isn’t quite hip enough to reach a mainstream audience.

I think I’ve still only seen about two-thirds of the show, but I hit most of the areas of interest to my company; I’d love to spend a little time looking at some of the European products, just out of professional, and culinary, curiosity. But tomorrow I think I’ll spend a full day at Hoteres and decide how to divide up my Friday thereafter.

A representative from the trading company that’s helping me source yuzu products took me out to dinner with a business acquaintance of his and invited Hiromi along. We had a nice fully vegetarian meal at a restaurant near Tokyo station. My contact’s wife was actually vegetarian, but he said she has unfortunately passed away… Anyway, with a day advance notice, that restaurant can make everything vegetarian. We had a kind of omakase menu, featuring some regional varietal of thin leek blanched and dressed in a mustard-miso based dressing; some hiya-yakko style gomadoufu; a little tounyuu nabe (soy milk hot pot) which had some yomogi (mugwort)-seasoned konnyaku and Japanese leeks. Some boiled glutinous rice, almost fermented like South Indian idli, served as a bed for a nimono of spring bamboo shoots garnished with a cooked cherry blossom. We had some nice parcels of yuba fried in a dough made from soybeans, accompanied by tara no me (a kind of wild mountain vegetable common in springtime) tempura; these were simply offered with salt for dipping. We had some sakura udon, house-made udon colored with crushed cherry blossoms, in a vegetarian kakejiru (soup base). And finally we had a bit of rose-infused ice cream.

Along the way we tried some imo-jochu (Japanese sweet potato vodka), regular grain-based shochu, and two kinds of cold sake. Mr. Hiba indicated that he prefers to have a variety of drinks to taste during a meal… It’s a good thing I don’t drink heavily or this could have been very treacherous.

I’m a little sleepy, and I’m up a little late, but I hope to make some good use of time at the Hoteres show tomorrow.

FoodEx 2005, Day 1

jason

I spent most of the day in the international section of FoodEx, mostly because that’s the hall where I entered. I wanted to briefly say hi to my dragon beard candy supplier, and I also had a meeting planned with a yuzu juice supplier in the afternoon, who planned to meet me in the international hall.

A few companies I ran into had products quite compatible with my vision, so I spent a little extra time talking to a few of them. Among them, I met a Hong Kong based supplier of certified organic teas from China, which also seemed to have an excellent packaging design team. The woman who manages their business said that she spends a lot of time finding the teas and might only take one of the many selections of tea from a particular farm. I found a Malaysian-based producer of beautifully packaged moon cakes, very contemporary and hip looking, and fairly nice quality; the same company makes some nicely packaged European/Asian style cookies and cakes that have some crossover appeal. Another interesting concept was a Singapore-based old-school cafe with a contemporary interior design, and a signature toast spread that’s a sweet custard base flavored with a Singaporean herb. Most of those companies have products that would fit in beautifully in upscale supermarkets; they wouldn’t have an appeal limited to a first-generation immigrant audience. At the same time, the prices should be a little more compatible with the needs of these types of markets than my ultra-high-end candy.

As last year, official policy prohibits me taking photos during the food show, but I may get some packaging shots online from samples in the next day or two.

I met with a yuzu juice company I’ve been trying to get prices out of for the last 6 months or so. It sounds like it might be a bit of a problem to get the exact configuration I need from them until summer or so, when some new factory equipment is coming online. However, I now have a source should I need, say, 5000 or 10,000 liters of yuzu juice in bulk packaging. The main problem is that it will need to transport such an item in a refrigerated container, which would preclude any consolidation. And the pricing isn’t really that pleasant to look at for anything shy of 15,000 liters (which is nearly a full container load). So I might have to hold off on yuzu juice and related products until they can supply their shelf-stable products this summer.

It turns out, though, that they would be able to custom manufacture some salad dressing recipes and other related products I’ve been investigating, and they can also supply other useful Japanese fruit commodities made from kabosu, daidai, shikuuwaasaa, and so on. They even can provide me with pure yuzu oil, which is even higher grade than most cosmetics are using. So, although I’m not thrilled with the cost, I’m happy I can finally answer customer requests for yuzu products.

Tomorrow I’ll be at FoodEx again, and I will probably take all of Thursday at Hoteres.

Just before FoodEx

jason

So I thought I’d do some… er… research before FoodEx, and I thought it would be very important to know how these two cakes taste.

They came from the patisserie Gerard Mulot in the basement of Shinjuku’s Takashimaya.

Cake 017-150w Chocolate from Gerard Mulot

I can report that both surpassed my expectations. The caramel and apricot tart or flan on the left was pushing the envelope on the caramelization, just to the point where the caramelization could go no further without disaster striking. and was surprisingly light on the sugar. (As the homeless culinary appreciation sensei in Tampopo explained, French cuisine is a constant battle with burns). The other cake featured two layers of chocolate ganache or mousse atop a small layer of chocolate sponge cake, covered with the intense chocolate you can see in the photo. It was seriously chocolate… minimal sweetness, very complex. I just wish I could get this in Seattle.

While I was at it I picked up some yuzu candy and yuzu seeds, and tried some tonyu gelato. Lunch involved some ordinary respectable pizza margherita and kinoko cream soup.

I also chatted with someone else in the department store who works for a rising specialty food company in Yamagata, and she put me in touch with their head office. I may have the chance to meet with them before leaving town. This company makes some really nice products with various fruits; it clearly focuses on a domestic audience, but might have some potential in upscale New York and San Francisco supermarkets or department store shops if the wholesale price is right.

A short hop to Hong Kong

jason

I experienced some laptop trouble as I was hitting Hong Kong and I wasn’t able to get the machine to boot. I finally got it to successfully pass the initial POST tonight, just as I’ve arrived in Tokyo. I may have limited connectivity should my machine go down again, but below I’ve posted the entry I was writing as I was approaching Hong Kong March 2/3.

Last year around this time I was sitting aboard an aircraft bound to Tokyo for FoodEx, just starting out my journey as a struggling entrepreneur.

Once more I am headed to Asia, this time with slightly more carefully defined goals, a tighter schedule, and a much more cautious budget.

I spent the last few days trying to cram in a never-ending list of essential errands, some of which I had been neglecting for far too long. The night before my trip I didn’t get a wink of sleep, as I worked solidly until about 4:30 am, just enough time to get out of the shower as the airport shuttle was arriving.

My financial resources are tight this trip, owing to huge amounts of accounts receivable not yet arrived, a little oversupply of inventory in a lull between holidays, and a few accounts payable.

It’s a really nerve-wracking period. I hope to get some more support from my supplier, and then I intend to establish a couple of new relationships when I get to FoodEx that will let me launch a couple of my own signature products. I’ve been keeping a couple of ideas on the back burner for a long time due to cost concerns, but I’ve been examining the business models more carefully recently, and I think they are more achievable than I previously gave them credit for.

I plan to finalize an order for some less financially risky products as well, including some fruit teas from Korea, which I should resolve next week if all goes well. Long shelf life and pricing that is less scary for retailers should make it easier to build up my revenue streams.

On the more trivial side, I’ve learned that the best way to get an edible vegetarian meal on United Airlines is to request a Hindu meal. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but about as good as you could expect from microwaveable trays; the dishes turned out more flavorful than is usual for airplane food, since they used at least some hint of spices. The rather amusingly misrepresented silver dollar sized “naan bread” was pretty pitiful: stale and refrigerated, as is customary for airline bread; the heavily preservative-treated conditioner-filled bread was essentially the same as supermarket bread. One of my major annoyances with the “lacto ovo vegetarian” meals on airlines is that for some reason they seem to think that a dairy-and-egg consuming vegetarian would much rather have hydrogenated-fat-laden margarine than butter. This leads to including things like inedible packaged vegan cookies and, well, inedible margarine, in the mealservice. Paneer cheese made an appearance in the first and last meals of the flight, and one of the vaguely south Asian sweets had the good sense to be made with butter.