Taiyaki: the people’s choice during hard times

November 26th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Not fishy at all

Not fishy at all

The media is covering a new fast food outlet called The Taiyaki, which opened Nov. 3 on Center-gai in Shibuya. If you are at all familiar with popular Japanese foods you’ll know that taiyaki are plain yellow pancake-like concoctions filled with red azuki bean paste and shaped like tai (red snappers). The Taiyaki sells variations on the theme with fillings that some morning news show commentators find almost blasphemous. In addition to azuki (¥150), there’s chocolate & custard (¥180), apple cinammon (¥180), Italian tomato & cheese (¥220) and German potato (¥220). Normal street-stall taiyaki tend to go for ¥110-140.

So far the store, which occupies only 10 sq. meters, is a hit, with a constant line of customers trailing down the street. The Taiyaki is owned by Hotland, a company based in Gunma Prefecture that made its name with Gindaco, a chain that sells another fish-identified fast food, takoyaki (octopus balls). In addition to the Center-gai outlet, Hotland has two other The Taiyaki stores, one in Sendai and one in Sano.

Hotland says that the Center-gai store attracts 1,000 customers a day, thus lending credence to reports that we are now in the midst of a “taiyaki boom.” Supposedly, taiyaki sales increase dramatically during economic downturns, and we are certainly in one of those now.

Taiyaki is said to have been invented in 1909 by a shop in Azabu Juban called Naniwaya Sohonten. It was confection for the hoi polloi, which explains the shape: red snapper was a delicacy that only the rich could afford, so by dressing up a sweet that is made from nothing more than flour, sugar and red beans, the common folk could feel a little more special. And it was a hit. In 1937, the store started granting noren-wake, which is somewhat similar to what we would now call franchises, and soon there were 150 Naniwaya stores in the Tokyo area.

In a recent interview in the Mainichi Shimbun, the 86-year-old third-generation owner of Naniwaya said that the main store hit its highest sales in 1923 during the recession following the Great Kanto Earthquake. He also said there were taiyaki booms during the postwar slump and the 1975 “oil shock,” when the novelty song, “Oyoge Taiyaki-kun” (Swim Taiyaki!), became a surprise hit and has since sold more than 5 million copies.

Taiyaki to go

Taiyaki to go

But probably the main reason why taiyaki becomes more popular during bad economic times is that a lot of people lose their jobs during recessions and start cheap businesses to make ends meet. As mentioned above, you only need three ingredients to make taiyaki, so the startup capital is relatively small. And most taiyaki are sold at street stalls, which require very little overhead. People’s desire for taiyaki doesn’t necessarily increase during a recession; it’s just that there’s suddenly more places to buy it.

Fairly good proof of this theory is provided by Onagaya, a Kyushu chain that popularized “white taiyaki,” whose filling is tapioca. Onagaya says that franchisees can learn the business in only three days and open a store just as quickly and with very little money. Since launching the business in December 2007, they’ve opened 195 stores, and reportedly receive dozens of calls from potential franchise owners every day.

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