Food & Drink

Mochi is making a sweet turn outside Japan

Bloomberg

Vivien Wong and her brother Howard are pinning their future on a Japanese favorite that is beginning to gain popularity elsewhere.

Mochi is made by steaming and pounding rice flour until it has a chewy, glutinous texture like a gummy bear or even — at a stretch — soft toffee, only with a more complex flavor that doesn’t depend on sweetness. It is an essential part of the Japanese New Year’s holiday menu, but also eaten year-round in sweet and savory soups, or on its own with a red-bean filling. And since the early 1980s, local company Lotte has produced an ice cream-filled version known as Yukimi Daifuku.

Vivien is a chartered accountant who spent four years working in financial analysis at Barclays Capital, after three years at Baker Tilly. Howard was an analyst at JPMorgan Cazenove.

He first tried the ice-cream version of mochi on a visit to the U.S. and thought it might be an business opportunity.

“We both wanted to start our own company,” Vivien says. “I wanted to be more in control of my own time and to be able to create something tangible.”

They formed V&H Ltd. in May 2008 and spent two years developing the products before they began trading in 2010. They offered their two product lines — Little Moons frozen mochi ice-cream and Tsuki Mochi truffles — initially to local restaurants.

Success came surprisingly quickly. Vivien met two key industry figures at the 2010 Restaurant Show in Olympia: Mike Lewis, executive chef at the Yo Sushi restaurant chain, and Regis Cursan, executive pastry chef at Nobu in London.

“Yo Sushi wanted our chocolate mochi immediately,” Howard says. “We got our first order for a pallet, which, at the time, was huge. It was like: ‘Does anyone have a forklift we can borrow?’ ”

Another early supporter was Emma Reynolds, co-owner of the Tonkotsu ramen restaurants. Customers now include the French chain Sushi Shop, which has an outlet in London.

“Going into restaurants was a strategic decision because at the time we didn’t have enough money to invest in a brand,” Howard says. “Even if we’d been able to get into stores, we knew maybe fewer than 1 in 100 people at the time had heard of mochi. Selling through restaurants was a way of getting the product out to people while testing the market.”

The U.K. company announced in June that it was branching out into retail, with an agreement to sell Little Moons mochi in Whole Foods, while Selfridges stocks Tsuki Mochi.

At the time, Vivien and Howard’s company was already supplying 15,000 individual mochi a day to restaurants, including Wagamama. At Yo Sushi, the mochi are the best-selling dessert, with eight ordered every minute. Nobu serves a bespoke range.

V&H aims to have retail make up 50 percent of revenue in five years.

Sales are now on track to reach $1.5 million this year, Vivien says.

For more information, visit www.littlemoons.co.uk.

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