Flavor, freshness give Hokkaido a leg up in Tokyo

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In Tokyo’s Yurakucho, adjacent to the prestigious Ginza shopping district, Hokkaido has gained a reputation for fresh products that can compete with brand-name goods from around the world.

Since its opening in 2000 in a commercial building in front of JR Yurakucho Station, Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, a pilot shop run by the prefecture, has attracted an increasing number of customers with its special northern island offerings, including frozen salmon and fresh ice cream.

“This store’s prime aim is to win recognition for Hokkaido’s special products in the nation’s capital,” shop manager Kyosuke Hosomi said.

“But thanks to the good location and the Hokkaido brand, we have maintained surprisingly good sales,” he said.

About 30 percent of the store’s sales comes from fresh vegetables, fish, dairy products and processed foods, including sausages and pickles. Another 30 percent comes from sweets, including chocolates and cookies. The shelves are also stocked with liquors, handicrafts and books on Hokkaido.

A best seller is ice cream made from fresh milk from a Hokkaido ranch. During the summer, 1,000 helpings a day are sold. Food and drink are served in a cafe space set up within the store.

While promoting the prefecture is the primary objective, the shop’s expanded product line and operating costs are increasingly supported by its sales. Over a holiday period, up to 2,500 customers may come in.

“Hokkaido has an image of freshness,” a female customer in her 40s said. “Whatever the product is, to me it seems to taste good if it is labeled ‘from Hokkaido.’ “

The 50 million yen in annual rent for the prime location, however, is too much for sales of grocery items — which average 600 yen — to cover, so the rent is still wholly paid by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government.

“The store’s advertising effect cannot be measured by money,” said Takaki Kudo, of Hokkaido’s industrial promotion division. “The ailing Hokkaido economy is still very reliant on agricultural and fishery production, as well as the food-processing industry.”

The prefecture’s economy has been hit hard by the nation’s protracted economic stagnation, as shown by the bankruptcy of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, the largest bank on the island, in November 1997.

The dairy and beef processing industries have also been damaged, first by the mass food-poisoning outbreak linked to tainted dairy goods produced by Snow Brand Milk Products Co. and then by the outbreak last year of mad cow disease linked to Hokkaido cattle, and the subsequent beef mislabeling fraud involving a now-defunct Snow Brand subsidiary.

Started in 1925 by a group of farmers who settled in Hokkaido seeking a new frontier and industry, Snow Brand was one of the prefecture’s leading firms.

“The promotion of Hokkaido food products is our key administrative objective,” Kudo said.

The store is also a test market. More than 200 of its 850 items are stocked on shelves to win over Tokyoites. If they sell well within three months, they can win a permanent place in the store, but if they fail, they will be sent back to Hokkaido.

The store’s current smash hits, including potatoes in a pouch, have survived the severe screening process.

“This store is also a research lab to help Hokkaido develop products that can compete in the national market,” Kudo said.