Restaurants and cafeterias in Japan display plastic food models so that potential customers can get a better idea of what they want to eat, and decide what to order before seeing a menu or sitting down
The plastic food model industry in Japan is struggling to keep sales up amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as people are staying at home and restaurants are closing early
The leading plastic food model manufacturer has taken to social media to rejuvenate its sales by using their food models to create viral photos
Restaurants and Food Culture in Japan
From delicious sushi to a hot bowl of ramen to a sizzling wagyu steak and more, Japan has an almost limitless amount of options when it comes to finding a good meal. Food wise, Japan has long been renowned for its awesome cuisine.
Food is everything in Japan, and food isn’t just food. Japanese culture and social life arguably revolve around food as socializing often involve getting to know new friends, coworkers, or even strangers through a meal. There are even specific orders, etiquettes, and “rules” one must follow when indulging in certain foods.
When food is this important, the restaurants, izakaya, street vendors, and even the millions of vending machines become important. In fact, there are 474,048 restaurants in Japan. Japan is also second after France when it comes to countries with the most Michelin star restaurants.
So with deep food culture and almost half a million restaurants to compete with, how do certain establishments get people to come to eat in them? You may be thinking, “with good food, of course!”. While this is the obvious and most effective answer, there is more to it than that.
To compete, restaurants must market and advertise effectively and offer incentives like low prices, special offers and menu items, or even free Wi-Fi. On top of this, they need to be located in a good spot.
Plastic Food Models
In Japan, standing out and finding ways to lure in customers is key to the success of a restaurant. One way to do this is by making your potential customers hungry! Thus, plastic food models or plastic display foods, referred to as “food samples” in Japan, are commonly found lined outside restaurants in glass display cases.
Many first-time tourists are surprised, intrigued, and most importantly, hungry when they first lay eyes on Japan’s plastic food. Overseas, people are used to seeing pictures of food on menus, posters, and commercials, but in Japan, you can often pick out exactly what you want to eat before going inside or even looking at a menu.
The Pandemic’s Impact on the Food Model Industry
You may now want to go out and find a restaurant with a food model display or book your first trip to Japan to see it for yourself, but as we all know, we are still in a global pandemic, and restaurant owners know this the most.
Many restaurants have been closing during the last year as a result of decreased sales amidst the pandemic. Restaurants are now advised to close at 8 pm in large cities and are largely restricted from serving alcohol, a large source of income for most places.
Further, with stay-at-home orders in place, restaurant owners in Japan struggle to keep customers coming to eat. In fact, with not as many people out, there has been a decrease in the need for public advertising as ordering food online has become ever so popular during the pandemic.
Therefore, restaurants have been more focused on setting up online orders, take out, and social media presence to increase sales. While restaurants understand the impacts of the pandemic, so does Iwasaki, the company that makes plastic food models.
In the last year, Iwasaki has seen a 40% decrease in orders for plastic food models due to restaurants no longer focusing on drawing in passerby customers.
Adapting to Life During the Pandemic
Iwasaki is the largest manufacturer of plastic food models and was founded in 1932. With almost 100 years of experience, they have quickly adapted to the pandemic to increase sales. One way was to raise awareness that having food models outside is actually smart during the pandemic. Customers can choose what they want outside without physically touching a menu, meaning less time touching menus and less time deciding what to eat.
Importantly, they recently began to focus on social media to increase the sales of plastic food models. They even changed their online store so that individuals could make purchases rather than just restaurants.
In particular, they have used platforms like Twitter to post funny pictures of their food models to gain attention. In short, it has been working. A picture of omu-rice covered in ketchup or omelet rice, a Japanese comfort food, on top of a keyboard went viral as many thought that someone had actually placed their omu-rice on their keyboard and squirted ketchup on it.
They have also released new and more satirical model foods like a spilled can of coffee, a miso soup stand for your smartphone, or a steak paperweight and pen holder. Just try not to crave a steak when stacking paper at the office!
Check out Iwasaki’s website to order some model food!
Kevin Murasaki grew up moving back and forth between Chicago and Yokohama, Japan. Known as a "hafu", Kevin is half Japanese, and half American. Now a videographer and drone operator based in Fukuoka, Japan, Kevin enjoys playing basketball, driving on mountain or "touge" roads, and fishing in his free time. Kevin is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia.