By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
New business models have been established during the economic downturn over the past few years and the food industry is no exception. With the success of Kogi Taco and other food trucks, a new brand of “social media marketing” food vendors have become familiar sights on the streets of Los Angeles.
They use social networking websites such as Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as promotional tools to communicate with a hungry fanbase of youth and working adults. Takoyaki Tanota is among the Japanese vendors to try to make it in the competitive mobile food business.
Based in Gardena, Takoyaki Tanota already has more than 500 Twitter followers checking out their takoyaki , a favorite at Japanese summer carnivals. Juliette Takimoto of Rosemead said, “ I love Tanota. I follow them on Twitter and try to go wherever they go. It is fresh, and different from the frozen one.”
Takoyaki Tanota is run by three Japanese surfers— Taichi Maruyama, Nori Fujii, and Takeo Shibatani — who met in Southern California through their love of catching big waves. Tanota’s debut was in Little Tokyo on May 12 and they will also be in Little Tokyo for Nisei Week. The Rafu Shimpo asked them how they started the business and their future goals.
Q. What are the most common questions being asked by customers?
A. “What is Takoyaki?” “What’s inside?” these are the most commonly asked. We explain that it is like a pancake ball but not sweet, and in the dough, we put octopus, eggs green onions, and tenkasu (crunchy bits of deep-fried dough), special broth. In Osaka, takoyaki is a casual meal or street food that one can eat on the way back home from drinking at stands or eat as an afternoon snack. Some of the beach houses also serve takoyaki.
Q. Who are your customers and what has ben their response?
A. Our customers are diverse. Some people see us selling takoyaki and get excited since they know what it is. We assume these are the people who already have some experiences of eating takoyaki in Japan. Asian Americans are our core customers.
Q. Where did you get the recipe?
A. Takeo knew Yama-chan in Osaka, a famous takoyaki shop. The owner supported and trained him. Takeo rearranges the recipe in his own way.
Q. How did you come up with the name of your business?
A. We took the first syllable of each member’s first name: Ta-ichi, No-ri, and Ta-keo.
Q. Whose idea was it to open a takoyaki cart?
A. Takeo had some experiences of working for the restaurant industry in Japan, and he wanted to start a business selling takoyaki. Takeo originally came from Osaka and is very familiar with the food. Takeo told Taichi about his idea of having takoyaki business in the States. Then Taichi consulted with Nori, who has more experience and Nori chimed in with them. Nori also came from the Western part of Japan and is very familiar with takoyaki. Nori volunteered to share the part of the initial expenses and the business started rolling.
Q. What about your business experiences in the U.S.?
A. Nori came from Japan in 2006 to takeover the wallpaper designing and importing company called Nature Tex in Cerritos. Taichi is a third generation mechanic, and he took over the auto-shop Waraby’s in Gardena in 2003. Takeo has been here since 2008 and he works for Tanota five days a week.
Q. You made the business come true after one year of its inception. How did things come about?
A. We did not know much about the regulations and licensing process in the food business so it was about trial and error. First, we were planning to sell takoyaki on the classic Volkswagen bus, just like the one we see on the beaches in Japan since it looks cute. However, once we bought the vehicle, we figured out that the bus couldn’t pass the health permit by Los Angeles County. We could not afford a vendor truck, so instead, we bought a 1500 pound-grill cart. We pull the cart by hooking up onto a 4WD to the location. The cart is made for hot dogs and tacos, so we had to ask an authorized place to transform it to a takoyaki cart based on the regulation. The cart cost approximately same as a middle-class car. We got the cart first, then health permit and got the business license.
Q. What types of permits do you need and how much does it cost?
A. To operate on the street, you need to get a health permit from the County, and business license from the city wherever you go and park on the street. The health permit was around $1,500, and the city licenses are depending on the city. Some cities are for free.
Q. Were you influenced by Kogi Taco’s social marketing strategy?
A. We do not believe it was directly influenced but indirectly. One of our friends advised us to start the Twitter. I think Kogi was the one who became successful by doing that marketing. We cannot say that we are successful yet.
Q. Why did you choose Little Tokyo to debut?
A. Little Tokyo was hometown for Japanese Americans and we wanted to start from there. We also attended the LTCC (Little Tokyo Community C ouncil) community meetings and ask for support.
Q. How was your experience in Little Tokyo?
A. Takoyaki in Osaka should be soft and liquid inside. However, some customers thought that the inside was liquid because it was not cooked enough. Today, even Tokyo takoyaki is too soft to lift it with a toothpick. If we fry it with oil, it would be crispy outside but it won’t be healthy. So we try to meet customer’s expectation, we now grill longer to make it a bit harder. Tanota’s motto is “healthy and tasty even if it gets cold.”
Q.What is difficult about running the business?
A. It is difficult to find the location for business and get steady customers. We don’t know where we can park until we get there and if that spot is too close to a restaurant, we may not park. At this point, we go to K-1 Speed in Gardena every Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. It is a family fun place and four to five catering trucks will be there including Lomo Arigato on the parking lot. People bring chairs and eat dinner out there. So we would like to find a stable location similar to K-1 so people can come. We are now interested in the East Los Angeles area. Since people do not know when we are showing up, it is hard to get repeaters. We also offer catering service for private parties.
Q. If you used a surfing metaphor, would you describe your business goal as a big wave or a barrel?
A. Takoyaki business is somewhat similar to surfing since everyday the weather changes, and people are different … just like ocean. It has been three months since we got into the “ocean” but we feel like we are not even becoming a wave yet. Our goal is to let people know more about takoyaki in terms of healthy, easy, and tasty food. I wish takoyaki would be recognized as much as sushi in the future.
Takoyaki Tanota will be at the Nisei Week Los Angeles Tanabata Festival this Saturday and Sunday at JANM Plaza, 369 East First Street, Little Tokyo, and on Aug. 21 at the Gyoza Eating Championship at JACCC. Follow Takoyaki Tanota and visit their website takoyakitanota.com