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Seminar Report: Some Thoughts on “Retailing Without Waste” in Kyoto. (Part 3)

By Murr-ma

All Totoya’s unsold produce and past-date prepared foods (generally about one 18-liter buckets’ worth) is composted at the end of each week.

Q11: What about products ordered from other regions or overseas? When shipping is involved, have you still been able to find ways to reduce waste?

Response: We ask producers to pack vegetables and other items into cardboard boxes, starting with the heaviest items at the bottom, and use newspaper for padding.

Some items only come in plastic containers. In the case of some imported products, such as almonds, we cannot legally avoid using plastic. But in those cases, we try to order large quantities (10 kg bags, for example) and then re-use those bags as much as possible.

Q12: Yes, besides returnable bags and boxes, there are certainly other ways to reduce waste. By the way, you also sell natto (fermented soybeans), don’t you.

Response: Totoya provides stainless steel containers for our natto maker, who then fills and seals them, and delivers the natto back to us. Although the containers are washed at Totoya before being sold, the natto maker already sterilizes them as well (by boiling in a large stainless steel pot) before the beans are added.

Q13: Do you have any strategies for avoiding loss even if you order products in large quantities?

Response: Actually, we are also in the wholesale business. Products we purchase in large quantities, we repackage in smaller amounts (with no additional waste), and then sell those to 80 or so smaller stores across the country. We call this our of "Totofure (Totoya Friends)" program. But we usually only purchase in 10-20 kg lots, so we don't generally have much of a problem with too much surplus or leftovers.

Q14: So those stores that want to buy in small quantities, and avoid producing waste, have the option of joining Totofure. By the way, if a store is too small to operate a kitchen, can you think of any other ways of preventing losses?

Response: We try to just avoid selling any products that tend to generate losses.

We also work through "Totofure," consigning to them many products we handle (60 items of directly imported food products alone). Then, if there are any leftovers, they can return those to us, and we charge them only for what they sell.

Q15: That sounds like a big help. By the way, do you have any problem with losses with your “Triple Cropping” program (see Part 1)?

Response:Initially we were planning on opening a restaurant for evening dining as well. We were concerned that, if the store offered only prepared foods, we might end up with a lot of leftovers that would get thrown out. However, after only our second day open, we had to give up on the restaurant idea. It was just when Corona first started, and we had to prioritize preventing the spread of disease. Nonetheless, surprisingly, we have been putting out a rotating selection of 20 or so prepared dishes every day, and have had no problems with losses.

Virtually the only waste we produce comes from unusable vegetable leftovers, and eggshells. That averages about one 18-liter tub’s worth per week. And some of the farmers we work with are happy to take them off our hands.

Q16: And anything still remaining is composted?

Response: Yes, that’s right.

Quality control is a process of constant trial and error, working together with our producers.

Q17: Has the product lineup changed in the year and a half since the store opened?

Response: We have eliminated a few items that didn't sell well, and stock new items that we think will please our customers. As I mentioned earlier (see Part 1), we are also considering introducing more frozen food items. We receive a lot of good input on this from our staff.

Q18: What are some of the Kyoto main store’s best-selling items?

Response: Sales of Inari Sushi (sushi rice stuffed in a simple pouch of fried tofu), have been growing since the day we opened. It is easy to buy and simple to eat. Generally, I think sales of pretty much all our prepared foods have increased.

In bulk foods, our nut butters are also really popular. There just aren’t many other places selling freshly ground nut butters.

Q19: Are the hot-selling products at the Kokubunji store different?

Response: At the Kokubunji store, nuts and dried fruits sell very well. These are very “in” now with Japanese shoppers.

Q20: I am concerned about sanitation and quality control. Have you experienced any problems with selling in bulk and keeping the store clean?

Response: It is true that customers can touch any fresh produce sold by weight. But tongs are used for all the bulk foods. Shoppers place the amount they want in their own containers, and then weigh them.

As for fruits and vegetables, at the time when the store first opened the Corona situation was so severe that many people wondered if we would be able to use open displays. I was concerned myself but, surprisingly, none of our customers seemed to mind (laughs).

Most people are used to produce wrapped in plastic. Even if you give them package-free options, they will still tend to go with the plastic.

Q21: Some stores say that, if they have packaged items on the shelves, it is hard to interest customers in bringing their own containers and purchasing by weight. Do you feel that it is necessary to give shoppers that choice?

Response: Yes, I do. However, for example, in France the price is usually different. The packaged option tends to be a little more expensive. If you buy by weight, it’s cheaper. I think this is an effective way to steer customers toward trying buying by weight.

When shoppers can save money by bringing their own containers, that is a big incentive.

Q22: Going back to quality control, how do you prevent insects and oxidation of nuts?

Response: The Kyoto main store has a good turnover rate. Once items are out in the store on display, they move quickly. However, if a product does not move well in any particular week, we can adjust. For example, in the case of nuts, we can process less, we can roast more to make nut butters, turn them into granola, and so on.

Q23: So the ability to process products in-store is one way of maintaining quality control?

Response: That's right. We keep a close eye on the produce section. Strawberries, for example, go bad one by one. In the morning when we put out all the fruits and vegetables, if any are looking tired we immediately pass them on to the kitchen. If they have already gone bad, then they are wasted. So we try to stay one step ahead, and process them while they are still fresh.

Q24: That being said, you can’t use large quantities of things like spices, all at once, right? In that case, quality control must be a challenge.

Response: When we first opened the restaurant, we got carried away and added too many spices. We almost died (laughs). But now we make and sell our own original garam masala and curry powder, and we use those in the curry we serve for lunch. So as much as possible, we try to be sure to have all those spices in stock all the time.

Q25: How do you manage to keep those spicy fragrances from fading away?

Response: We use small containers.

Q25: Oh, good idea. How do you manage the air temperature inside the restaurant?

Response: We keep the temperature at 20℃ throughout the year. When we opened, we were worried about humidity during the summer. There is a company that sells a biodegradable silica gel. It comes in paper packaging, and can be composted. So we use that as a desiccant to prevent moisture.


Wooden boxes control humidity very well, so they are ideal for displaying leafy greens and mushrooms.

Q25: This is inside the store, isn't it?

Response: Yes, that’s right. Open refrigerators create a breeze which will fatigue leafy greens. So we place wooden boxes inside the refrigerators. This mushroom box also has an acrylic lid, handmade by the grower.

When we display leafy greens in this way, depending on the variety, some will stay fresh for as long as two weeks. Sometimes they keep so well that we’re a little lost as to when to move them on to the kitchen.

When we first opened, we were constantly making improvements. We asked the growers many questions, such as what they thought about first soaking the vegetables in water for a while. Recently we’re starting to feel like maybe we’ve got things figured out. According to their individual needs, all the vegetables are carefully put away at night, and displayed again each morning.

Q26: This has also been a process of trial and error with the growers, hasn't it?

Response: Yes, but of course the growers ship the vegetables off as soon as they are picked (so they don’t have to deal much with the problem of spoilage). So they’re like, "We have no idea." (laughs).

Q27: Finally, do you have any thoughts on how your policies have changed since opening the main store in Kyoto, or on what the future may hold for you?

Response: Our basic policy hasn’t really changed at all. We would like to share everything we have been learning, as rapidly and widely as possible, all across the nation. We don’t have enough energy to open an endless number of stores ourselves. However, we are trying to develop a model, based on the Kyoto Totoya, for convenience store-sized shops that might eventually be found everywhere, throughout Japan.

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