In a sweet market that is all about the tiny details, Royce’ Confect, started in 1983, is now one of Japan’s most beloved chocolatiers. It has charmed its way round Asia and now has its sights on Europe.
Japan is into chocolate in a different way to most of the world. Mars bars and Hershey’s Kisses are here, but they are not really what the Japanese think of as chocolate. In the land where the gift for one’s colleagues is a fundamental courtesy, the art of producing and presenting perfectly formed and packaged little sweets is way more important than grabbing a quick sugar rush on the run.
Japan’s chocolate market is much smaller than Europe’s (2006 per capita chocolate consumption was 2.2kg, whereas the British ate 10.3kg and the Danish 7.7kg per person). But there is an almost fanatical demand for innovation and creativity. Within that market, Royce’ chocolates, made in the northern island of Hokkaido, are among the best and most loved.
The Royce’ facility, half an hour out of Sapporo, is a perfect model of a modern food factory. It is clean and smart, with state-of-the-art equipment and unifiying green-painted floors throughout. It produces 6,000 tonnes of different chocolate products a year ranging from fruit-jam filled, wafer-thin prafeuilles to cream ganaches (made from the famous nama or “raw” choco). Over the years Royce’ has branched out. It now also makes cakes, coffee and liqueur. It even dabbles in arts and crafts.
Japanese chocolate has a reputation for being delicate and not too sweet. And Royce’ makes some of the smoothest, using cacao made with minute crystals. Some Royce’ dark chocolate has over 90 per cent cacao content.
The Royce’ facility is obsessively clean. And large signs erected above the factory floor exhort employees to smile and greet each other and to “just wait a minute” rather than rush through their tasks.
Royce makes all sorts of luxury confectionery but its signature product – which all Japanese are familiar with – is surprisingly ordinary: chocolate-coated, crinkle-cut potato crisps. The potatoes are locally sourced and have a thick, semi-sweet coating.
Hokkaido is known for all sorts of things (beef, soya beans, sugar beet). But chocolate is its real speciality. Tourists from the rest of Japan have been carrying home armfuls of white chocolate from here since the 1970s. Royce’ was the first to make the darker versions – and the brand is now synonymous with the island.
Good packaging and design give Royce’ an edge on the competition. But it’s quality that really counts. When Yamazaki started he says that some of the local chocolate “contained so little cocoa butter it wouldn’t even melt in your mouth”.
The secret to Royce’ success may lie in its restricted availability. The only stores in Japan and Southeast Asia that sell Royce products are in airports. Customers can also order by mail or online.
How did get into the chocolate business?
I was a salesman selling food manufacturinng equipment to local confectioners. We were selling a lot of chocolate-making machinery, as there was a huge boom in white chocolate, which became synonymous with Hokkaido’s image of purity and snow.
What made you set up your own firm?
The climate was right for milk and dark chocolate. We’re almost on the same latitude as Switzerland and Belgium.
Why the apostrophe on Royce’?
Royce’ is Yasuhiro backwards in Japanese, more or less. A friend who’s into numerology told me it would be better luck for the name to have 21 strokes, so I added some.
1970s Yamazaki notices Hokkaido’s boom in white chocolate production.
1983 Yamazaki quits his job and establishes Royce’ with capital of ¥10m (€80,000).
1998 Royce’s’ capitalization expands sixfold to ¥61m (€500,000).
1999 Opens new production facility, with floor space of 35,800 sq m.
2001 Royce’ Confect International is established to serve international markets.
2005 Diversifies into other business areas, such as arts and crafts and coffee.