Once viewed with disdain in Tokyo, food trucks are now transforming disused parts of the city thanks to a canny new firm.
It’s a spring morning as seven food trucks pitch up by an office building in Ginza, where a few curious workers are already nosing around for lunch options. Run by husband-and-wife duo Naoya and Rieko Shibutani, the Pieni Kissa van is a big hit and queues quickly form to take advantage of its bestselling taco rice. “Food trucks can be run at a relatively low cost,” says Naoya, passing a steaming parcel to a hungry-looking salaryman. “We cannot afford to open a restaurant in Ginza but we can serve people here.”
The Shibutanis’ business is one of many on the books at Mellow, a food and technology start-up that’s helping Tokyo’s nascent food-truck scene get into gear. For a start, Mellow’s database of what’s sold and where has proved a useful resource for these entrepreneurs and many like them. “With the sales data we can have a good idea how much food we need to prep to minimise waste,” says Naoya.
By noon the trickle of office workers has become a flood and longer queues are forming. Shodai Kawabe, 29, is busy doling out portions of lasagne and risotto from his green Subaru truck, while nearby Takako Tsumura is serving an aromatic south Indian curry. Popular fast-serving chefs can sell as many as 280 meals in a two-and-a-half-hour lunch service.
Eating on the go is big business all around the world but in Tokyo, Mellow is working with property developers to offer small-scale food entrepreneurs a chance to get their businesses motoring. What’s more, these battalions of “kitchen cars”, as they’re known in Japan, are tempting the lunch crowd away from bricks-and-mortar alternatives in favour of colourful takes on vegan bento boxes, Okinawan taco rice and falafel.
Mellow’s main sell is that it connects independent food trucks with places to park and building owners. The company was set up in 2016 but the co-founder, Masayoshi Ishizawa, has been in the business since the early 2000s. “Passionate food-truck owners are so attractive [to nearby businesses],” says Ishizawa. “Our purpose was to build a business platform for them.” If you’re a building owner, this rotating army of food trucks visits from Monday to Friday and plays a key part in keeping the workers in surrounding buildings happy.
Just like restaurant owners care about their interiors, food-truck chefs go the extra mile to make functional and eye-catching “kitchen cars”. Although some operate from larger models, such as Mercedes Transporters, many opt for compact types that suit narrow sideroads and the itsy plots of land provided for pop-ups. Japanese automakers tend to lead the pack but the Volkswagen Type 2 and Citroën Type H are in higher demand among design-conscious crowds and younger entrepreneurs. Then there’s the custom fit-out to turn the vehicles into working kitchens able to turn out hundreds of meals an hour; many have a built-in awning and are decorated with pictures of the dishes. Tasty stuff.
Despite the global popularity of food trucks, it wasn’t always so simple in Japan. “When we first started, food trucks were called yatai – building owners didn’t quite fancy it,” says Ishizawa. Yatai are insalubrious and rather anonymous street-food stands that pop up during the cherry-blossom season and summer festivals, then disappear just as quickly – generally without leaving much of an impression on diners. “Dirty, dangerous and unknown was the prevailing image,” says Mellow co-founder Takuya Moriguchi. “We wanted to change the public image,” adds Ishizawa.
Ironically the weakness of such stalls has become a strength for food trucks. The mobility that many felt made the yatai flighty and untrustworthy has given a new breed of businesses lower start-up costs and the ability to pop up all over town, testing new areas without the burden of having to have a fixed premises. Mellow helps build the relationships between these roving chefs and property owners, offering leverage to help the latter rent out unused squares and carparks during lunch hour.
“They have an excellent talent for cooking but not a corporate profile,” says Ishizawa. There are rules too. Mellow makes sure everything from hygiene to fire safety, parking and rubbish collection is dealt with. And business is booming: the number of food trucks in Tokyo almost doubled from 1,261 in 2006 to 2,575 in 2016.
Moriguchi, the IT brains behind the company, set up a database for the partner food-truck owners and an app for customers to show the whereabouts of their favourite wagons. “If they don’t sell, we make no profit either [so] it’s a win-win relationship,” says Ishizawa. The sales log from each truck streams back to the central system and the members can see how many dishes each truck has sold at each location to analyse the market.
At the moment Mellow has 500 members. They sign up for a location on their preferred dates and Mellow ensures that variety is the spice of life: it doesn’t want three trucks hawking Thai curry on one corner or a street full of ramen sellers and not much else.
Every successful chef has regulars and of the many cooks we speak to, few seem interested in expanding their business too quickly. “They have a different definition of success,” says Moriguchi. “Many of them want to keep it small to have tight quality control,” adds Ishizawa, smiling.
Food trucks are gradually winning over a once-sceptical public and success is even affording these temporary visitors some lasting space in Tokyo. Developers are designing a space for them at the planning stage of new office buildings and Mellow is receiving more offers than ever.
“The landscape has changed: there is a greater diversity today and a food truck is a decent business option,” says Ishizawa. “We used to think of opening a restaurant one day but not anymore,” says Shibutani from his taco-rice van. “We decided to go with the kitchen car.”
- Mochiko Chicken Factory: Its juicy Hawaiian-style chicken is winning fans in the capital.
- Egypt Meshi Kochary-yasan: Kyoto-born, Egypt-trained Tuskasa Sunaga, serves koshary (Egyptian rice dish).
- Bon Appetit: Owner-chef Kazuhiko Okubo cooks the best rotisserie chicken in town. He learnt the trade in France and has been in the business for 20 years.
- Flaming Nora: Masaaki Kawauchi takes his staff to Thailand to learn how to make authentic Thai food.
- Bear’s Camp Café: Husband-and-wife duo Yasuo and Asuka Omori cook delicious barbecue-style bento boxes and taco rice from their bijou Citroën.