You never know when a networking/friendship opportunity will pop up overseas. As a result of a few freelance writing assignments for Chopsticks NY, I met Toru Furukawa, the president of FUJI Catering, a bento delivery company in New York City. Throughout the past two years, I’ve written about Furukawa’s company and his desire to introduce healthy bento to New Yorkers for Chopsticks NY, Examiner.com, and this website.
I’ve kept in touch with Toru, following the growth of FUJI Catering as it expands from delivering lunch to office workers to providing Café Zaiya customers with healthy bentos as part of its partnership with Japanese non-profit Table for Two (TFT).
Bento making is a labor of love for Toru, who is from an entire family of bento makers. His grandfather started a bento business in Tokyo, which is now run by his brother, Tadashi.
Before I left New York for my trip to Japan, I e-mailed Toru, asking if his brother’s company, Azuma Catering, sold bento at local conbini (convenience stores). The answer was no – his company delivers bento boxes only to Tokyo offices – but he asked if I were interested in meeting his family and visiting the bento company. My answer, of course, was a resounding YES!
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to visit a business in Tokyo. I took a train from my hotel in Ochanomizu to Katsushika and arrived at Azuma Catering at noon, after all of the bentos had been prepared and delivered to their customers.
I sat down with Tadashi and several employees who had been chopping, slicing, grilling, broiling, and deep-frying since 3:00 a.m. The group treated me to the bento of the day: A beautiful and delicious boxed filled with grilled salmon, broiled chicken, tofu, and vegetables.
After eating, Tadashi gave me a tour of the cooking facility, which has large rice cookers, deep fryers, and conveyor belts. I learned that the sturdy plastic containers that hold the contents of the bentos are picked up from Azuma’s customers at the end of the day and power-washed.
Azuma Catering has around 50 employees – which roughly doubling Toru’s staff – who work long days. Much like at FUJI Catering, the employees at Azuma Catering begin their day in the dark hours of morning, preparing meals that will be delivered to office workers throughout Tokyo. After deliveries are made, Tadashi plans the menu and prepares for the next day’s cooking.
I must admit that I was more than a little nervous about spending the day with Toru’s family. Toru warned me that no one at Azuma speaks English. At all. None. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them, or that we would completely misunderstand each other. Then I looked at it as a way to practice my Japanese.
It was a wonderful experience. Everyone was gracious and made me feel welcome from the moment I walked in the door. We spoke in Japanese 98% of the time, and what I didn’t understand or couldn’t say, I looked up on my Japanese dictionary iPhone app, which captivated the entire building.
Tadashi took the reins to the business a few years ago, but Azuma Catering is still very much a family affair. Tadashi and Toru’s father, Tadao, to whom Toru refers as a “bento geek,” ran the company for more than 30 years and still contributes to company decisions. Their mother, Teiko, drives one of the delivery vans.
Teiko has a wonderful sense of humor and a larger-than-life personality, causing the somewhat more subdued Tadashi to ask me if I thought she was loud. (She really wasn’t; she just has a boisterous personality.) Teiko took me to see Sky Tree, Tokyo’s largest tower that’s to be completed next spring.
Then I met Tadao and sat in on a brief company meeting, which was dominated by my demonstrating the iPhone app. I joined the Furukawas for a large Japanese dinner of tempura, soba, and sashimi. We talked to Toru on the phone several times, despite the fact that as our day was ending in Tokyo, his was just beginning in New York.
A friend in New York can turn into many new friends – and an unforgettable experience – in Tokyo.