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Women and children first at Japan's Crayon House

April 24, 2008

4 Min Read
Women and children first at Japan's Crayon House

In 1976, Keiko Ochiai was known throughout Japan as a radio personality and successful author of books about feminism, children's education and social issues. She was at the top of her game but wanted to do more to change people's lives. So she used the proceeds from her book sales to open Crayon House, a natural products store and restaurant where every business decision is influenced by the needs of women and children. Ochiai envisioned a community hub and safe haven for women that also connected consumers with organic farmers, traditional food producers and progressive writers. This concept was revolutionary in patriarchal Japan 30 years ago.

At first, the business was going to be just a restaurant and bookstore. But the organic growers' cooperative would only sell to retailers who sold fresh produce. So Ochiai decided to focus on organic produce, says Taketsugu Iwama, vice president of Crayon House. In 1976, very few Japanese retailers stocked organic and natural products. Most organic produce was sold directly from farmers to consumers through what has been described as Japan's first community-supported agriculture system, called teikei ("tay-kay").

Thirty years later, Crayon House has evolved into a two-store chain, with locations in Tokyo and Osaka. Today, the organic industry in Japan is still quite small, but is considered the largest market in Asia. In 2005, retail organic sales in Japan were $400 million, reports the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, but that translates into only $3.15 per capita compared with $47.50 per capita in the United States.

The organic produce department in the Tokyo Crayon House is a colorful display of fresh fruits and vegetables merchandised with a farmers' market look and feel, complete with handwritten signs and wooden crates. All produce at Crayon House is supplied by a national network of 420 small farms. The store's produce area is also home to a small dairy, frozen and grocery section.

The café features home-style organic and local foods. On the menu are many of the foods that influenced the macrobiotic movement in the United States, such as hijiki seaweed, brown rice, adzuki beans, steamed root vegetables and leafy greens. There are also Western-influenced dishes made with antibiotic- and hormone-free meats.

"Safe food tastes great," Ochiai says, and the weekday lunch crowd seems to agree; almost all of the 75 seats are taken most days. Customers can choose from the self-service buffet or the full-service café. Around the perimeter of the café is the Tea Time Library, a selection of books for customers to read. The Tokyo Crayon House also features natural personal care products, organic clothing and organic bed and bath linens. Near this healthy-home section, there's a relaxing nursing and diaper-changing area for customers.

Crayon House hasn't lost its roots, though. Its selection of books on feminism, women's health and environmental issues holds true to the philosophy this natural retailer was built on. The Tokyo store also boasts Japan's largest children's book collection, which includes more than 50,000 titles.

Children are also drawn to Crayon House's toy shop, which is filled with sustainable-wood trains, cars and musical instruments, as well as stuffed animals and educational games. The stains and paints used for all of the wooden toys are nontoxic and are sourced mostly from Western Europe. There's enough room in the toy shop for kids to play with the many demonstration models.

But with just two stores, a trip to Crayon House is not convenient for everyone, especially busy mothers. Rather than build new stores, Iwama says he decided to expand Crayon House's mission and sales through Organic Town, a 365-page annual food catalog and 150-page annual toy catalog with a companion Web site, Internet, fax and telephone sales are now 12 percent of total company sales, and are growing steadily. Shoppers can order anything they find in the store, plus thousands of other items ranging from fresh fish to organic wine to boxes of fresh seasonal produce. The produce is shipped directly from the farmers' cooperative for maximum efficiency and freshness and to honor the store's commitment to cooperation with farmers.

Iwama says Crayon House wouldn't be what it is today without its dedicated and educated employees. Staff members go through months of intensive training that includes classroom, in-store and on-farm education. Iwama says it takes about two years' experience to be properly trained in all aspects of the store. But, in the end, he says, "The customer is the best teacher."

Scott Silverman is the Go Organic! For Earth Day retail manager and business development manager for Music Matters in Minneapolis. Megumi Iino is the manager of Rising Sun Translation in Minneapolis.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 12/p. 50

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