Home > Highlighting JAPAN >Highlighting Japan February 2016>Home away from home

Highlighting JAPAN

Packed with Style

Thomas Bertrand’s firm Bento&co markets Japan’s signature bento boxes and related products in about ninety countries. He’s helped fuel consumer fascination with these containers, particularly in France, to the extent that French dictionaries now include the word “bento.”

Thomas Bertrand, a native of France, first came to Japan in August 2003, entering the country as an exchange student at Kyoto University.

“Japanese anime was very popular during the 1980s in France, especially shows like Dragon Ball and Captain Tsubasa,” he says. “And home video game systems like the Famicon (Nintendo Entertainment System) were also trending, so of course my generation grew up very familiar with those things. Naturally I had a great interest in Japan, and I came here so that I could study the country’s history, culture and economy.”

Bertrand started a blog in 2005, mainly about Japanese culture and his life in Kyoto. As the blog became popular, he developed connections with a great many people, including French journalists and other French nationals living in the Kansai region, which spurred him to consider starting a business. Although he began with the idea of introducing things unique to Japan to the rest of the world, he couldn’t decide on what he wanted to share.

In 2008, however, he heard from his mother in France that Japanese bento boxes were being featured in a French magazine. Bertrand was instantly convinced that this was it. He discovered that while plenty of websites were introducing bentos, few were selling bento boxes. The next day he ordered catalogues from manufacturers, and soon after acquired an inventory of ten different types of bento box at a cost of about 50,000 yen. He got friends he had met through the blog to help him with the website’s construction and design, and launched his site Bento&co about two weeks later.

France is a country with a rich and bountiful food culture. Many people attend cooking classes there taught by three-star chefs, and the Japanese bento box aligned perfectly with the esthetic souls of the French people, who love to enjoy beautiful and delicious meals. Furthermore, with the effects of the 2008 financial crisis still fresh, many people were bringing their lunches instead of dining out at expensive restaurants. Bento&co has enjoyed better-than-expected results ever since.

Thanks to being mentioned in an English-language blog, Bento&co also began receiving orders from North America and the UK, and in 2010 Bertrand launched an English-language version of his website. The company now receives orders from ninety nations; although most of them are from North America, Europe and Asia, orders come in from countries like Israel and Togo as well. In addition to ongoing wholesale distribution to overseas department stores and restaurants, Bento&co opened a bricks-and-mortar specialty store in Kyoto in 2012.

The current product lineup features over a thousand varieties and fifteen original products. Bertrand’s standard for selecting products is simple: “Whether or not I like it,” he says. In many cases, he adds, he has succeeded in presenting manufacturers’ bento boxes in ways that “revive” them as hit products.

His clients include manufacturers who now enjoy overseas sales ratios in excess of 10 percent, which has helped Bertrand gain deeper levels of trust in his business relationships. He has even begun to accompany manufacturers’ representatives to trade fairs such as “Maison & Objet” in Paris—the largest of its kind in Europe—as well as major gift fairs in Sydney, Australia.

“Anytime something new is born, it is always because of connections to people,” Bertrand observes. “Our bestseller is the Hakoya double stack bento box, and that came about from a casual conversation I had with a manufacturer after looking at a kokeshi doll. I said, wouldn’t it be fun if we could have a bento box like this?”

Bertrand has been developing paper-based bento boxes for use in catering and at hotels and restaurants. He’s also expanded his product lineup to include stationery, food items and cookware. In February and November of 2016, he plans to widen his scope of activity, opening a pop-up shop in Paris, among other endeavors.

Bento&co’s theme is “to bring Japan closer,” according to Bertrand. “Starting with bento boxes, I want to deliver the wonderful things that Japan can offer to people all over the world,” he states, “and I want to make them as easy as possible to order from anywhere, anytime, and deliver them smoothly to our customers.”