National

Unknown overseas, Garigari-kun popsicles year-round best-sellers in Japan

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

It’s Japan’s top-selling popsicle — yet still virtually unknown overseas.

At ¥70, it’s also one of the cheapest ice candies sold in convenience stores. Around 400 million of these frozen treats are consumed annually, which translates to the average Japanese buying three or four over the course of a year.

It’s become a common sight and a seasonal tradition to see children and suit-clad salarymen alike ripping open the plastic wrappers and biting into the colorful bars during the scorching heat of summer. And now, increasingly, consumers don’t seem to care what the mercury reads to enjoy these frozen desserts.

Meet Garigari-kun, with garigari being both an onomatopoeia for hard and crunchy and the name of its instantly recognizable mascot, a middle schooler with closely cropped hair and big teeth.

Since its invention in 1981, the multiflavored ice pops, including recent variations with a layer of ice cream on the outside, have drawn a cult following, growing into ice-cream-maker Akagi Nyugyo Co.’s flagship product.

In an industry dominated by confectionery giants including Lotte Co., Ezaki Glico Co. and Morinaga Milk Industry Co., Akagi Nyugyo stands out for its edgy and often self-deprecating marketing strategy that has set it apart from its bigger rivals. And its success mirrors how the entire ice cream market is growing, as cold sweets are no longer a seasonal product but something eaten year-round.

“Summer is still our peak in terms of sales, but in recent years it’s become a trend to eat ice cream during winter as well. People like to cozy up under a kotatsu while they eat Garigari-kun,” says Fumio Hagiwara, a marketing executive at Akagi Nyugyo, referring to a traditional Japanese household heating appliance featuring a coffee table, blanket and a heat source. Hagiwara says winter ice cream sales for his company grew by 20 percent between 2014 to 2017.

According to the Japan Ice Cream Association, total sales of ice cream and related products in fiscal 2017 reached ¥511 billion, a 3.5 percent increase from the previous year and the sixth straight year of growth since 2011. It said growing demand from elderly consumers and eating ice cream during the winter months are some of the reasons behind the surge.

Akagi Nyugyo has released several flavors this winter, including a banana-flavored Garigari-kun and another featuring cookies and vanilla. They are among the dizzying number of Garigari-kun flavors released over the past decades, some of which became a kind of a sensation because of its shock value.

In 2012 the Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture-based company made headlines when it released a corn potage, or cream of corn soup, flavored Garigari-kun. To the surprise of market observers, it proved to be a hit and immediately propelled Akagi Nyugyo into the national spotlight, resulting in what was likely the first-ever scoop in Japan regarding ice cream flavors: The Shukan Josei weekly magazine ran an article in its Nov. 6 issue that year correctly predicting the next Garigari-kun flavor to be adzuki daifuku, a Japanese confection consisting of mochi (rice cakes) stuffed with anko (sweet bean paste).

Akagi Nyugyo, whose corporate slogan is “Asobimasho” (let’s have fun, or let’s play), didn’t stop there.

In 2013 it released a Japanese-style white cream stew Garigari-kun, followed in 2014 by its most controversial product: the napolitan-flavored Garigari-kun, based on the Japanese pan-fried spaghetti dish of the same name that typically uses a tomato ketchup-based sauce, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and bacon or sausage.

“Our team came up with that idea,” says Hagiwara. “But it bombed. It really did taste like napolitan but wasn’t palatable.” That failure set Akagi Nyugyo back around ¥300 million, but also cemented its image as a risk-taker willing to challenge conventional norms.

The business, founded in 1931, has come to capitalize on the slightly off-beat, comical image it has nurtured over the years. A television commercial for its Sof ice cream, for example, shows a young woman wearing a miniskirt and dancing. Her head, however, is replaced with that of a balding middle-aged man with a mustache.

The wacky 15-second clip went viral, spawning online speculation about the identity of the man and the purpose behind the odd commercial — perhaps the kind of response Akagi Nyugyo wanted.

“It’s been our corporate philosophy to remain an industry outsider,” Hagiwara says. “And it’s nothing new. We’ve released unconventional ice creams in the past, including ramen, curry and ikura (salmon roe) flavors.” More recently, its melonpan (a type of Japanese sweet bun shaped like a melon) Garigari-kun released in 2016 proved to be a hit.

That’s not to say Akagi Nyugyo specializes in making bizarre frozen desserts. It’s most basic soda-flavored Garigari-kun in its iconic bright blue package remains the most popular out of all the Garigari-kun popsicles.

Akagi Nyugyo traces its roots to a mom and pop restaurant selling shaved ice. It was later incorporated and in 1964 released its first major hit product, the Akagi Shigure strawberry-flavored shaved ice sold in plastic cups. In 1980, it began selling Akagi Shigure in popsicle form for ease of eating, and the following year debuted Garigari-kun, which initially came in three flavors: soda, cola and grapefruit.

This was also around the time when the number of convenience stores in the nation began growing rapidly. With frozen food sections at common retail outlets often dominated by products made by bigger ice-cream-makers, Akagi Nyugyo concentrated on establishing a distribution channel in convenience stores, producing original tie-up products that could only be purchased at these chains.

The plan worked, enhancing product exposure and driving revenue. The company now employs 390 staff, and its annual sales has doubled from ¥21.2 billion in 2006 to ¥45.4 billion in 2017.

To boost production capacity Akagi Nyugyo built a new factory in 2010 that has also become a popular destination for factory tours, where families can observe the entire process from molding to packaging and buy numerous Garigari-kun-themed paraphernalia at a shop where, ahead of December’s festive season, a giant Garigari-kun robot donning a Santa Claus outfit greets kids.

And much like gyūdon — a cheap but beloved meal consisting of a bowl of rice topped with thinly sliced meat simmered in a mildly sweet sauce — Garigari-kun has become a market indicator of sorts.

Facing rising costs of raw materials, Akagi Nyugyo decided to raise the price of Garigari-kun by ¥10 to ¥70 in 2016 — the first hike in a quarter of a century. But instead of quietly raising prices, Akagi Nyugyo ran a commercial featuring stern-looking company workers and executives bowing and apologizing for the change, a move that drew widespread praise for its sincerity and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, as well as a New York Times front-page article tying the event to the nation’s deflationary economy.

With a firm grasp on the domestic market, Akagi Nyugyo has been slowly expanding overseas.

In 2016 it opened a subsidiary in Thailand with plans to export Garigari-kun to other Southeast Asian countries in the years to come.

And with Tokyo hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, Hagiwara says the company wants to promote one of Japan’s best-kept secrets to the hoards of tourists that will visit the nation.

“I want visitors to have a taste of Japan’s quintessential ice cream treat,” he said.