Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

FoodEx 2005, Day 2: The Japanese section, and business dinner

I managed to get a little misdirected on the train this morning, but I wasn’t the only one confused by the ambiguities of the Keiyo-sen; a Japanese couple opposite me was equally bewildered to be moving nowhere closer to Kaihin-makuhari station. I think I had this problem once last year, so I should know better, but it was comforting to know it was easy to be confused.

The other couple turned out to be running a wine importing company, so we chatted a little bit about our businesses and exchanged business cards. They seem to mostly sell German and French wines, at wholesale and in a little retail shop.

Since I focused on the Japan section today, I got to see that in fact the Japanese specialty food trade doesn’t change nearly as rapidly as I had previously thought. In spite of an apparently neverending stream of variations of bottled drinks, most of what I saw this year was, in one form or another, in last year’s show also. But I did see some good stuff, including a vinegar manufacturer and some nice foods from Hokkaido. I was kind of interested in a sea vegetable called “umi-budou” (sea grapes) which have a unique briny taste; alas, they don’t travel well. Some of the local producers of foods might have some potential with high end venues in the U.S., though sometimes the packaging isn’t quite hip enough to reach a mainstream audience.

I think I’ve still only seen about two-thirds of the show, but I hit most of the areas of interest to my company; I’d love to spend a little time looking at some of the European products, just out of professional, and culinary, curiosity. But tomorrow I think I’ll spend a full day at Hoteres and decide how to divide up my Friday thereafter.

A representative from the trading company that’s helping me source yuzu products took me out to dinner with a business acquaintance of his and invited Hiromi along. We had a nice fully vegetarian meal at a restaurant near Tokyo station. My contact’s wife was actually vegetarian, but he said she has unfortunately passed away… Anyway, with a day advance notice, that restaurant can make everything vegetarian. We had a kind of omakase menu, featuring some regional varietal of thin leek blanched and dressed in a mustard-miso based dressing; some hiya-yakko style gomadoufu; a little tounyuu nabe (soy milk hot pot) which had some yomogi (mugwort)-seasoned konnyaku and Japanese leeks. Some boiled glutinous rice, almost fermented like South Indian idli, served as a bed for a nimono of spring bamboo shoots garnished with a cooked cherry blossom. We had some nice parcels of yuba fried in a dough made from soybeans, accompanied by tara no me (a kind of wild mountain vegetable common in springtime) tempura; these were simply offered with salt for dipping. We had some sakura udon, house-made udon colored with crushed cherry blossoms, in a vegetarian kakejiru (soup base). And finally we had a bit of rose-infused ice cream.

Along the way we tried some imo-jochu (Japanese sweet potato vodka), regular grain-based shochu, and two kinds of cold sake. Mr. Hiba indicated that he prefers to have a variety of drinks to taste during a meal… It’s a good thing I don’t drink heavily or this could have been very treacherous.

I’m a little sleepy, and I’m up a little late, but I hope to make some good use of time at the Hoteres show tomorrow.

FoodEx 2005, Day 1

I spent most of the day in the international section of FoodEx, mostly because that’s the hall where I entered. I wanted to briefly say hi to my dragon beard candy supplier, and I also had a meeting planned with a yuzu juice supplier in the afternoon, who planned to meet me in the international hall.

A few companies I ran into had products quite compatible with my vision, so I spent a little extra time talking to a few of them. Among them, I met a Hong Kong based supplier of certified organic teas from China, which also seemed to have an excellent packaging design team. The woman who manages their business said that she spends a lot of time finding the teas and might only take one of the many selections of tea from a particular farm. I found a Malaysian-based producer of beautifully packaged moon cakes, very contemporary and hip looking, and fairly nice quality; the same company makes some nicely packaged European/Asian style cookies and cakes that have some crossover appeal. Another interesting concept was a Singapore-based old-school cafe with a contemporary interior design, and a signature toast spread that’s a sweet custard base flavored with a Singaporean herb. Most of those companies have products that would fit in beautifully in upscale supermarkets; they wouldn’t have an appeal limited to a first-generation immigrant audience. At the same time, the prices should be a little more compatible with the needs of these types of markets than my ultra-high-end candy.

As last year, official policy prohibits me taking photos during the food show, but I may get some packaging shots online from samples in the next day or two.

I met with a yuzu juice company I’ve been trying to get prices out of for the last 6 months or so. It sounds like it might be a bit of a problem to get the exact configuration I need from them until summer or so, when some new factory equipment is coming online. However, I now have a source should I need, say, 5000 or 10,000 liters of yuzu juice in bulk packaging. The main problem is that it will need to transport such an item in a refrigerated container, which would preclude any consolidation. And the pricing isn’t really that pleasant to look at for anything shy of 15,000 liters (which is nearly a full container load). So I might have to hold off on yuzu juice and related products until they can supply their shelf-stable products this summer.

It turns out, though, that they would be able to custom manufacture some salad dressing recipes and other related products I’ve been investigating, and they can also supply other useful Japanese fruit commodities made from kabosu, daidai, shikuuwaasaa, and so on. They even can provide me with pure yuzu oil, which is even higher grade than most cosmetics are using. So, although I’m not thrilled with the cost, I’m happy I can finally answer customer requests for yuzu products.

Tomorrow I’ll be at FoodEx again, and I will probably take all of Thursday at Hoteres.

A short hop to Hong Kong

I experienced some laptop trouble as I was hitting Hong Kong and I wasn’t able to get the machine to boot. I finally got it to successfully pass the initial POST tonight, just as I’ve arrived in Tokyo. I may have limited connectivity should my machine go down again, but below I’ve posted the entry I was writing as I was approaching Hong Kong March 2/3.

Last year around this time I was sitting aboard an aircraft bound to Tokyo for FoodEx, just starting out my journey as a struggling entrepreneur.

Once more I am headed to Asia, this time with slightly more carefully defined goals, a tighter schedule, and a much more cautious budget.

I spent the last few days trying to cram in a never-ending list of essential errands, some of which I had been neglecting for far too long. The night before my trip I didn’t get a wink of sleep, as I worked solidly until about 4:30 am, just enough time to get out of the shower as the airport shuttle was arriving.

My financial resources are tight this trip, owing to huge amounts of accounts receivable not yet arrived, a little oversupply of inventory in a lull between holidays, and a few accounts payable.

It’s a really nerve-wracking period. I hope to get some more support from my supplier, and then I intend to establish a couple of new relationships when I get to FoodEx that will let me launch a couple of my own signature products. I’ve been keeping a couple of ideas on the back burner for a long time due to cost concerns, but I’ve been examining the business models more carefully recently, and I think they are more achievable than I previously gave them credit for.

I plan to finalize an order for some less financially risky products as well, including some fruit teas from Korea, which I should resolve next week if all goes well. Long shelf life and pricing that is less scary for retailers should make it easier to build up my revenue streams.

On the more trivial side, I’ve learned that the best way to get an edible vegetarian meal on United Airlines is to request a Hindu meal. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but about as good as you could expect from microwaveable trays; the dishes turned out more flavorful than is usual for airplane food, since they used at least some hint of spices. The rather amusingly misrepresented silver dollar sized “naan bread” was pretty pitiful: stale and refrigerated, as is customary for airline bread; the heavily preservative-treated conditioner-filled bread was essentially the same as supermarket bread. One of my major annoyances with the “lacto ovo vegetarian” meals on airlines is that for some reason they seem to think that a dairy-and-egg consuming vegetarian would much rather have hydrogenated-fat-laden margarine than butter. This leads to including things like inedible packaged vegan cookies and, well, inedible margarine, in the mealservice. Paneer cheese made an appearance in the first and last meals of the flight, and one of the vaguely south Asian sweets had the good sense to be made with butter.

 

What to do about Latvia

I am a trusting person. I don’t tend to doubt people until they give me reason to do so. But sometimes I am fairly cautious. I don’t want to assume the worst, but I also don’t want to invite disaster.

A few days ago I got an unusual order online from a customer from Latvia. At first I was a little bewildered, especially the choice of shipping method was quite expensive, and then I figured I should do a bit of research before shipping off the order.

When I run an authorization a credit card transaction, several security checks are performed by the payment gateway. The billing address and zip code are checked against the address associated with the account. The system also checks the little card verification code usually present on a signature panel.

One problem with international transactions is that address verification service doesn’t usually work. If I recall correctly, one UK transaction had successful address verification process. But most of the time the processing gateway isn’t able to verify that the billing address matches.

It turns out that Latvia is a hotbed of credit card fraud. I called my bank to ask what I should do about the transaction, and I think their official policy is to make no recommendation, so they weren’t much help. But I was able to get information about the bank that issued the credit card, and so I could now call Latvia to request verification thatIthe cardholder matches up with the address given. They aren’t under any obligation to do so, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay even my decent Vonage rates to call the bank until I had some additional reason to believe the transaction was legitimate.

I’m relatively hands-on with my web customers. A few weeks ago, someone ordered some dragon beard candy with a gift card that left me with the impression that this was a business gift. The only thing was that they ordered the “love” gift wrapping, meant for romantic occasions. So I called her up to make sure that’s what she really wanted. She was relieved because she didn’t think her client’s wife would appreciate that very much.

Frequently somebody chooses an invalid shipping method or chooses some option that leaves me confused, so I usually email and then call to determine what they really want. Sometimes it takes a couple of days to get whatever little issue resolved, but it usually prevents mistakes and sometimes results in more loyal customers, so I consider it worth the extra time.

With international transactions, usually I need to clarify some details relating to shipping or something. My online store software has some issues with international shipping quote retrieval. Also, I usually want to make sure I know something about the customer.

So finally, Wednesday night I sent an email to the customer asking them to create a document that would authorize their bank to release verification information. I just asked them if it would be possible to do so, and explained what they should authorize. I think it would be a received as a fairly reasonable request.

So far, I haven’t heard any response, so I’m leaning toward canceling the transaction.

Common international credit card fraud indicators include differing billing/shipping addresses, and using a U.S.-originating card for a transaction being sent abroad. While far from conclusive, they indicate a higher probability of a stolen credit card.

In this case, those indicators were not present. But the customer didn’t ask about alternative shipping methods and chose a relatively expensive shipping option relative to the size of the order, without asking any questions. I’ve had perfectly legitimate orders from Japan, England, Italy and Germany, but I usually had to work out some details regarding shipping.

Recovering from Mother's day

The weekday demos last week weren’t terribly productive, in spite of an imminently approaching holiday, but I managed to sell a modest amount. However, it did seem that some people started picking up products on Saturday and Sunday, both with and without demos.

I’ve been sampling almost constantly recently, just because there’s no other way to get rid of inventory… Sampling will at least increase awareness, even if it doesn’t produce immediate results.

After May 16 or so, I’ll need to revert to a sales rather than promotion focus. Since I have a new product, I’ll be emphasizing them more than the candy, but I’ll try my best to get placement for everything.

The Matcha Latte mix from Three Tree Tea has been well-received. I’m quite happy with the customer reception so far, and sales are about what I expected. Pulling off simultaneous demos is a bit tricky, but I’m starting to get a bit of a rhythm.

The most difficult thing so far is anticipating customer traffic. The dragon beard candy needs to be brought out of my cooler just as customers approach, and that’s tricky. If I let the dragon beard candy stand at room temperature too long, the “icy” aspect of the icy-crispy texture disappears, and the experience isn’t quite as impressive.

Similarly, the green tea latte has a short lifespan, especially in small paper demo cups. As the temperature cools, the matcha oxidizes, and after 5 minutes or so, the taste can become a bit vegetal. Reheating will actually make this more pronounced. I never noticed this when I was serving the matcha latte at home, even if it was consumed over about 10 minutes. But in larger cups—especially preheated ones—the cooling process doesn’t happen as fast, I think, and perhaps proportionally less surface area is exposed to air.

So I’ve found I have to make no more than 4 fl. oz. at a time, which produces 6–8 demo servings (about 1 fl. oz. each after the milk foams up). If traffic is more slow, I make as little as 2 fl. oz. at a time. If any samples are left after 5 minutes, I now offer it to store staff or discard it. The same would be true with a coffee sample; coffee loses its best characteristics when it’s been sitting around for 5 or 10 minutes. The problem, of course, is that if I run out of samples and a customer doesn’t see the green tea, they often walk on by, and an opportunity is missed. I don’t know whether it’s better to overproduce and waste perfectly good tea, and always serve everyone instantly, or lose the occasional impatient customer. Sometimes a customer can be pulled in with the candy and held for the tea, and vice versa, though.

I found this to be less problematic with the iced version. There must be some difference in the oxidation, or maybe less shock from temperature changes.

At the end of the weekend, with inadequate sleep and some long days driving, sampling, and beyond, I felt completely exhausted. And I still didn’t sleep when I should have.

First matcha latte demo

It was a quiet day at Bellevue’s Uwajimaya, but I did my first demonstration of Three Tree Tea’s matcha latte mix.

Customer reception seemed mostly positive, but there are some folks who don’t like matcha, some who don’t like sugar, and some who don’t like milk…We’re not talking about an outrageously sweet drink; it’s not like a typical bubble tea. But there’s a wide range of tolerance for sweetness. Occasionally someone would say it wasn’t sweet enough (which is a more solvable problem: add more sugar)… Tea is a very personal beverage, and everyone responds differently. I’m quite fond of this particular blend, because it’s not too sweet and not too bitter… most of my Japanese friends say “choudo ii” (just right.) But Uwajimaya’s customer base comes from all sorts of regions… Today a Thai customer said that the dragon beard candy wasn’t as sweet as she prefers. Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese taste preferences tend to run a little sweeter than Japanese and Korean preferences, and Japanese and Koreans tend to like more sweetness than Chinese customers.

One bit of disaster struck. I started out serving hot matcha lattes, steaming the drink with an espresso machine’s steamer attachment. At some point the power indicator light went out, and I thought maybe the machine overheated and shut itself off. But it never got back to normal… I couldn’t turn it on again.

I improvised. The weather was moderate today, so it was no problem to start serving “iced” lattes… I just used cold milk and shook it up in a plastic pitcher supplied by Masalisa.

The big surprise of the day was that the medium size outsold the smallest “impulse” size. It is a bit cheaper per serving, but that’s quite the opposite experience with the dragon beard candy; I usually sell way more 3–pc. samplers than any other size. I’m happy about that, because the 1/2 lb. size will likely have some more elegant packaging in the future, and if it remains the bestseller, that will be a good coincidence.

Telling marketing stories

Joi Ito wrote about a book called All Marketers Are Liars which talks about the relevance of the stories behind products to their perceived value. It sounds like a good read, since I also realized the story behind a product is at least as important as the product itself… but I still haven’t figured out how to build a huge audience based on the story.

The products that I am most fascinated with, and most likely to import, have really compelling origin stories… when I first saw the dragon beard candy—served to an emperor two thousand years ago, handmade, ephemeral, usually unable to survive more than an hour or so in humid conditions—at a Japanese trade show I got really excited about it because it was unlike anything else on the US market, and fascinating to watch.

Of course, there’s not much of a “lie” in our story, but there’s some mythmaking. We don’t know which emperor the candy was first served to, but we’re retelling the traditional legend that every dragon beard candy maker in the world knows because they were taught the story by their master. We do try to message that this is more delicate than the street version, which might be a minor deception, because it’s necessary that we have this less sticky, more “refined” texture to avoid melting. It’s maybe less “fun” than the street version because it’s not as chewy and messy and there’s no 60 year old guy making it right in front of you, but the maker tries to compensate for it with beautiful presentation, an obsession for detail, and substantially better hygienic practices.

I guess one problem is getting the candy’s story retold effectively. I’ve so far been most successful with a high-touch method of doing the storytelling: live demos, in-store sampling, and so on. At wholesale margins, it’s really hard to build enough of a market to make a living doing that. Even with the word of mouth effect, I think my product is so obscure that the word of mouth doesn’t translate into rapid growth of customers; it’s special occasion; in the U.S. it doesn’t have the inherent advantage of being sold to tourists who want something interesting to bring back to their home countries, and it’s more extravagant than the US is used to for Asian foods.

But maybe my problem is more one of scale… I may not be “big” enough to do what has to be done on my own.

How to be adaptable

Over the last few days I have been chatting with some more people who I think will be good partners for near-term business projects… I was approached by someone who wants me to coordinate and plan a short-term ceramics event in the late summer/early fall in Seattle.

I also started conversations with another nifty Ballard business that has a compatible concept for Asian lifestyle goods, and it seems I will be doing some wholesale brokerage for them after we can settle on terms. They have excellently designed home interior goods made using sustainable practices.

Over time I realized that the best way to build my business is through partnerships with compatible projects. I’m hoping I’m not too late on the execution… but I’m quite happy with selling other goods as long as their objectives aren’t too far from my own.

I’m more than a little worried with all of the money risks I have right now, but I think I’m taking the right path to solve the problems… nonexistent inventory risk, building relationships with people of similar mind, and staying true to my vision, even if not the original tactics. 

Side trips to Doe Bay, Baker hot springs, and last Sunday's dinner

Hiromi and I made a rather sluggishly paced trip out of town Monday morning, owing to some morning errands. We had vaguely planned to head toward the Olympics, but a last minute decision sent us toward Orcas Island instead, which we reached rather late due to a full afternoon ferry.

We ended up in rustic accommodations at Doe Bay Resort, which has a couple of heavily chlorinated tubs filled with water from a hot spring, facing a nice bay view. Originally we thought this would be a short stopover on the way to some forest spring, but I had forgotten about the pace of island life… it’s defined by long, occasionally severely delayed ferry commutes, and particularly in the San Juans, long stretches of windy road. The weather improved as we approached Shaw Island, but the day started out rather gloomy. Once we arrived, we made our way to the resort, took a quick dip in the hot spring tubs, and then set out in search of a late dinner, even after a day full of small snacks…

We ended up at a forgettable but serviceable Caribbean-themed restaurant full of locals, which apparently switches to a no-service fast-food-style order at the counter and pray they find you when your order is ready model after peak dinner hours. The host looked at us smugly and said there was no waiting list or probability of indoor seating but we were welcome to order and pre-pay. We had some overly browned but still edible corn fritters and some pasta, and a curried avocado dish. It was kind of hippie food with Seattle mid-range restaurant prices. The drink, whatever it was, helped. 

Just beyond AnacortesHiromi surveys the view from on board the ferryShaw Island guardian seagull

We managed to get a healthy amount of sleep, and made another trip to the hot springs and took a nice little walk before checking out. We had a very nice, simple brunch with baked eggs and baguette, a provolone sandwich, and some very nice apricot pie at Rose’s Bakery.

Once off the island, we made our way toward Mount Baker, by way of Concrete. The Baker Lake area has an easily hikeable sulfurous hot spring, which is actually fairly lukewarm. The main challenge was passing through a heavily rutted logging road. The volcanic ash in the spring seems easily disturbed, so you can end up with a small accumulation of coarse ash particles when getting out, but it didn’t bother us.

On our way out, we noticed these nifty not-quite-ripe salmonberries, which I haven’t seen much of since I was younger. Blackberries were everywhere, though nowhere near ready. We also passed a few wild blueberry plants and Northwest red huckleberries, already growing berries, but not yet at the peak of ripeness.

Salmonberries

I think I was too sleepy to post dinner from the day before we departed, but Hiromi and I cooperated on dinner. I usually do most of the cooking, but she did the majority of the work today. She prepared the avocado and shiitake gratin, an eggplant raita (which is noticeably lacking in fresh cilantro on these photos… we were distracted). I made a mushroom and cashew curry, and after dinner, a matcha martini.

Sunday's spreadAvocado gratin
Nasu (eggplant) raitaMushroom cashew curry

Salsa, visitors, art, YuzuMura

One of the things that happens to me when I make salsa is that it tends to be too much… I don’t really eat things involving tortillas every day. But when tomatoes are half-decent I have that inclination… Alas, I’m still working on the absurd quantity of mango salsa I produced a few days ago. I think the slightly over 2 cups that I produced is probably not that much to anyone who lives on the stuff, but when you don’t have any chips in the house it goes a long way… I’ve been making a lot of things involving cheese, tortillas, and some incarnation of beans, with occasional involvement of additional greens.

Anyway, I hope I can get over that soon. Starting tomorrow, Hiromi will be in town visiting Seattle for about 10 days, and we cannot live on tortillas and salsa alone.

Yesterday I saw Reggie Watts (of Maktub fame) perform at a “party” at the site of the SAM sculptural park. It appeared that he was highly under the influence of some sort of mellowing substance. I think the closest thing to clarity we came to seeing what the park would look like were from some wood-grain obfuscated images shown inside a 20 foot orange shipping container (not a gas chamber) at the site… but anyway, it was a pleasant excuse to socialize.

Last night I was up late debugging a problem with my website. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before… but basically, the user experience was atrocious. If they selected an option to send the item as a gift, or any other general “order option” such as gift wrapping, it would appear to them that the whole ordering system was down. It turned out to be an error in the way a field in the database table behind the order options was defined. I thought I had done a quick run-through to test the feature, but I apparently missed something incredibly obvious. I should know better—I once was a software tester, after all, and I shouldn’t believe anything works without trying to break it—but I guess my priority these days is on rapid implementation, rather than testing. If it hadn’t been for a customer complaint, I don’t think I would have noticed it. It’s enough to make me remember the value of that kind of work…

I have been seeing a spike in telephone inquiries for products on YuzuMura.com of late. A few weeks ago, I started posting language in various places on the site that encourages people to call if they have questions. It seems to be resulting in some improvements in orders. I think I’ve processed almost as much in telephone orders this month as I had in internet orders in the particularly brutal months of February or March… The only problem is that my process for handling phone orders is tediously manual.

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