“Japan has an unbelievable spirit of innovation and there are always new flavors and concepts emerging.”
Pop-corn sized cream puff, potato chips coated with chocolate, fruits jelly made of konjac—meticulously made Japanese sweets and snacks are full of surprise, playful and more importantly, tasty. Danny Taing, web technology expert and former e-commerce specialist at Rakuten*, fell in love with Japanese snacks while living in Japan, and he launched subscription-based, Japanese snack box delivery business, Bokksu, to introduce and share the joy of savoring Japanese snacks with everyone in the world.
How did you come up with the idea for the Bokksu business?
As part of my job at Rakuten I was involved with the company’s Ichiba and Travel businesses**. It was especially through working for the latter that I was exposed to many different Japanese prefectures along with their regional specialties. When I returned to New York two years later, I had a suitcase full of unique Japanese snacks that my friends went crazy for, as these were goodies they couldn’t find at local Asian supermarkets. That was my first hint that there just might be a market for this.
What were some of the difficulties while developing and launching the business?
Initially the challenge was on the supply side, in terms of how to procure these snacks found only in Japan. In the beginning when we were in beta phase, I was testing the concept out on about 20 friends and family members. At that point, I was the only employee and would go places like the basement of Takashimaya in Japan, stock up on snacks and then package them myself. When we got bigger I tried to go through local wholesalers, but there were difficulties with that as well. As our numbers kept growing we needed assistance with the supply chain, as many manufacturers in Japan only wanted to sell in bulk and our scope was not large enough. As we keep growing we have to give suppliers more lead time, so they can meet the capacity we need.
How did you secure this supply chain, and how do you find new Japanese snacks?
Now we have a supply chain consultant on the ground in Japan, and his presence makes a huge difference. Previously we had been trying to contact a lot of the suppliers via email, but would receive no response. Since they are in the same time zone our consultant can now contact them via phone or in person, and we are able to source directly from manufacturers. At first I would send the boxes out from here, but now we can ship directly from Japan to our customers all over the world for free. Having ears and eyes on the ground is also essential for keeping up with new Japanese product releases and snack trends. Local staff is indispensable, as is the work done by our New York-based staff whose numbers we plan to increase.
What are some trends you see in Japan’s snack scene?
This is something that you see recently worldwide, but in Japan people are definitely looking for eating options that are Instagrammable due to their weirdness, coolness or uniqueness. Also, Japan has an unbelievable spirit of innovation and there are always new flavors and concepts emerging. For example, a new cake-flavored Kit Kat has come out that has actual cake in the middle of the chocolate! We would like to share these new tastes as much as possible with subscribers, but it’s a balance between authentic Japanese flavors and making sure they’re appealing and approachable to non-Japanese consumers. We can’t make the contents too exotic.
You focus on Japanese snacks. What do you think makes Japanese snacks unique compared to snacks from other Asian countries?
I think Japanese snack manufacturers take an extra level of care compared to their Asian counterparts. First of all, the packaging is so gorgeous you sometimes feel bad opening it. In general Japanese sweets are less sweet than Western and some other Asian sweets, so you can really enjoy the complex levels of flavor that they offer. Another feature of Japanese sweets is their seasonality, so that you’ll have tastes like cherry blossom and strawberry in the spring whereas fall brings sweet potato and chestnut. We follow this seasonality closely at Bokksu.
In New York, we can buy a variety of Japanese snacks at Japanese grocery stores. What is the advantage of subscribing to Bokksu?
We have direct relationships with small-batch manufacturers in Japan and they are largely focused on the domestic market, so for many of these places we are the sole exporter abroad. This allows us to provide snacks that you literally would only be able to find in Japan, as opposed to competitors who tend to offer more generic, brand-recognizable items. In addition, our boxes come with a tea pairing that corresponds to the box’s cultural theme, as well as a Tasting Guide that explains the box’s story and the flavors of each product. This ability to learn about Japanese culture via our product is our added value. We carefully curate each month’s boxes so that you can enjoy delicious snacks and teas while getting to know Japan. Another part of the Bokksu experience is the visual presentation, as we want customers to enjoy the unboxing.
Our boxes tend to rotate every three months between seasons, themes and regions. For example, one past theme was Tea Time, where all of the products in the box featured tea infused flavors. We’ve also done a Black Box which included items like black bean sweets, dark chocolate, etc. As for regions, up until now we’ve covered Hokkaido, Kyoto, Kyushu, Osaka and Okinawa.
What are some of your specials for the Valentine season?
The Valentine’s Day box is a big seller for us, and previously we’ve gone with the theme of “Doki Doki (Heart Pounding) Kit Kats.” This box had 10 different flavors of Japanese Kit Kats including Green Tea, Double Green Tea, Hoji-Cha, Strawberry, Purple Yam, and Double Sexy Almond.
Do you have any plans to expand your business?
We have just launched a new offshoot sake business, which is the first sake subscription box in the country! Just like with Bokksu, I began with 30 beta users among friends and family. These boxes feature three half bottles of sake, along with Tasting Guides and pairing suggestions. Within the U.S. there are restrictions in terms of where you can ship alcohol, but New York and California are two of the 16 states where it is allowed so we are confident that there will be enough demand.
There are many Chopsticks NY readers who plan to visit Japan. Are there any places or things that you can recommend?
I am a huge fan of Spa World in Osaka, which is an eight-floor theme park dedicated to bathing. It is divided into the two sections of Western and Asian, with probably about 20 different baths you can soak in. If you like bathing, this will be like Disneyland for you. I also love the Hakata area of Fukuoka Prefecture for its yatai (food stalls). I remember them as being heated and being served by a cocktail waiter making martinis, so needless to say it’s an unforgettable experience.
*Rakuten is Japan’s largest online shopping platform founded in 1997.
**Rakuten Ichiba is a B2B2C marketplace, and Travel is its online travel booking site.
— Interview by Stacy Smith
Through www.bokksu.com, you can subscribe premium Japanese snack and tea box and get it delivered to your door. Currently they offer the February box filled 10+ different flavors of Kit Kat.
Danny Taing went to college at Stanford University and worked at Google post-graduation, but he quit after a year to go to Tokyo. Taing ended up studying at Waseda University for a year, and following that he joined Rakuten as a member of its first international class. After coming back to the States, his passion for a real taste of Japan made him launch Bokksu, a subscription service that delivers carefully selected and curated snack box to your doorstep.