From rice to riches

Tako tycoon keeps spreading his tentacles

by Rob Gilhooly

A small light bulb lit up above the head of Susumu Takeuchi when he was barely 24. And last year, his modest little business idea brought in 400 million yen.

“I had seen rice dealers going around neighborhoods taking orders and often wondered why,” Takeuchi explained. “Then I realized, if they just waited at their stores, potential customers would probably end up buying their rice at the nearest supermarket. By taking orders and delivering the rice, the dealers were offering a kind of courtesy service.”

Recognizing the potential of the direct approach, Takeuchi remodelled a small van he had acquired and took to the streets of Chofu and Fuchu, western Tokyo.

Instead of rice, though, takoyaki was his product, and he drove around local neighborhoods selling the griddle-fried octopus dumplings door-to-door.

“I’d knock on the doors and ask if they’d like some takoyaki. If they said ‘no’ I’d give them some anyway, telling them I was doing some market research and would be most grateful for their cooperation.”

By keeping a diary of which households wanted the dumplings and at what time, Takeuchi eventually built up a steady clientele.

“Children want something to snack on after school and fathers coming home after work want something to go with a glass of beer. I thought that if I could get the timing right I could head off the customer before he set off for the supermarket,” Takeuchi said.

Seven years later, Takeuchi’s takoyaki van has become a full-fledged company, Iron Cook K.K. — a franchise chain with 150 yatai vans nationwide.

“To expand like this was never my intention. I was broke, so originally I just wanted to make enough money to eat and pay the rent,” Takeuchi said.

He soon found himself inundated with inquiries from people wanting to find out how to go about opening up such a business.

Amid the current economic slump, where setting up a business requires start-up capital that many just cannot afford, more and more people are beginning to see the merits of the mobile sales business, Takeuchi said.

“Starting a regular store entails a huge financial commitment, and if it doesn’t work out, potentially huge losses. In the mobile-sales business, the initial outlay is small, and if sales aren’t good in one area, you can always move on and try another,” Takeuchi said.

And the possibilities are infinite, he added. For example, vacant patches of land formerly occupied by firms that have folded offer a huge business opportunity for van-based yatai, he said.

“It might be that it’s a location with a good flow of pedestrians, but to set up a regular store would be too costly,” he said. However, by getting a number of yatai vans to set up on such lots — so they create a kind of “yatai village” serving a variety of foods — the owners of the land would be able to make money for very little outlay themselves, he added.

He also sees plenty of potential for other motorized business genres. Massage vans could do a healthy trade around popular hiking spots during the climbing season, Takeuchi suggested. The off-season lull in the mountaqins could then be compensated for by moving to locations in major shopping or business districts, he added.

“After shopping for a certain amount of time, shoppers often take a break . . . and a leg masseur waiting outside the department store might be just the ticket for tired legs.”

Hair stylists and florists are among the many other professionals that might benefit from the mobile-sales business, Takeuchi commented.

This entrepreneur is full of ideas, and he knows the customers are there.

“For me, the van is the kitchen and there are a lot of people waiting to enter the dinner hall.”