Small vegetable stores called “yaoya” are common in most local shopping districts, but neighborhood retailers in general are declining due to competition from supermarkets.
Operators of a greengrocer that opened in late April in the Iriya district of Tokyo’s Taito Ward are challenging that trend by offering something their bigger rivals cannot.
“We want to be what supermarkets are not, and that’s to become the center of a community,” said Tsuyoshi Nakamori, 21, a senior at Tokyo University of Agriculture who leads Gakusei Yaoya Sun, a rare student-run vegetable shop.
Nakamori said their ultimate goal is to connect farmers and consumers to help vitalize agriculture. “It’s something that conventional greengrocers didn’t work on, but I believe we can do our part,” he said.
Every weekday from around 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Nakamori and his business partners, including Yu Oride, 22, a senior at Sanno University, markets about 30 to 40 fruit and vegetables, including cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, watermelons, lemons and cherries. Much of the produce is organic and sent directly by farmers the students have negotiated with. These days, they also sell potatoes that both Nakamori and Oride harvested at different farms on the weekend. Other items come from the Ota Market in Ota Ward.
“Organic produce is a bit more expensive than regular produce, but our strategy is to keep sales from each customer high” by providing added value, according to Nakamori.
He admitted they are still falling short of their ambitious sales target of ¥100,000 a day, but declined to provide their current sales figure. “Well, setting a number will help us put more effort into what we do,” he explained.
Nakamori and Oride are members of an intercollege group called SOLA, whose members are interested in agriculture, farming and environmental issues.
His interest in reviving agriculture in rural areas led Nakamori previously to market produce on weekends at the Marche Japon farmers market near the United Nations University in the posh Aoyama District in Shibuya Ward. He and his friends would drive into the countryside, including to Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture and Ibaraki Prefecture, to bring the fresh produce directly to market.
Eager to do more to support farmers, Nakamori said they hit upon the idea of starting their own fruit and veggie shop.
A chance meeting with Susumu Kawada, 65, a fruit and vegetable dealer and an executive of the greengrocer union of Ota Market, led to the opening of their shop in the neighborhood. For four decades, Kawada ran the Kawakyu vegetable shop, but now he focuses on wholesale and his clients include major hotels.
Kawada is responsible for running the “greengrocer vitalization school” at the Ota Market, which is a series of seminars targeting vegetable retailers. The aim is to stimulate the industry as well as form a network among members. Kawada met Nakamori at one of the sessions in spring.
Impressed by their enthusiasm, Kawada said he wanted to give young people a chance, so he offered them his former retail site. In addition, Kawada also taught them the basics of how to run a greengrocer, including how to display the merchandise and decide on prices.
“I also taught them to be polite to customers and communicate with them, but at the same time they should not be caught in the conventional mode of vegetable retailing, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
“After the students opened the shop, many people in the community told me the neighborhood has been re-energized,” Kawada added with a smile.
Pictures of the farmers are hung at the shop, and both Nakamori and Oride do their best to explain where the vegetables come from, and how best to serve them. In fact, they often simply pass along the information they receive from other customers.
Now in their fourth month at the shop, which is situated near a corner facing Kototoi Avenue in Iriya, Nakamori said there is a clear difference between the weekend market and the neighborhood store.
“Customers (in Shibuya) were mostly passersby, and some were there just to look at or taste what we were offering. But here, we’re in a community, and we’re receiving regular customers. There’s a lot of communication,” he said.
Nowadays, Nakamori and Oride go out for drinks after work with their regular customers in the neighborhood. They are also working with one of their customers to put on a workshop for kids and take them to visit one of the farmers to see where the produce comes from and how it is grown.
“We want to do things other than just marketing vegetables,” he said.