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Coronavirus pandemic a breakthrough moment for Japan's kaleidoscope of vending machines

This photo shows the handmade bento box vending machine installed by Cafe & Bar Soil Kitchen in January in Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Jan. 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Aoki)

KITAKYUSHU, Fukuoka -- With restaurants across Japan cutting hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are turning to vending machines to sell bento meals and a dizzying array of other items round the clock.

    Some operators lease vending machines to clients for reasonable fees and supply them with the know-how to sell their products. This has led to a series of firms with no previous vending machine experience deploying the devices, allowing them to market their wares without bringing their workers and customers into close contact. The move is attracting attention as a new business model in the time of COVID-19.

    The vending machine in front of Cafe & Bar Soil Kitchen, in Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, sells items including bento boxed meals with main dishes popular at the meat-focused restaurant, such as deep-fried chicken dressed in tartar sauce, yangnyeom Korean-style fried chicken seasoned with a sweet and spicy sauce and youlinji Chinese-style fried chicken seasoned with soy sauce, each priced at 500 yen (about $4.60). The bento boxes pop out frozen, and customers can enjoy the "taste of the restaurant" when they reheat them in the microwave.

    "It will be a long time before the coronavirus pandemic ends," said the 42-year-old owner of Soil Kitchen. "I wanted to think ahead and find a new business model."

    When the first coronavirus state of emergency was issued in April 2020, he deployed a food truck to cover the revenue drop caused by shortened business hours, but he found negotiations over where he could operate the truck tough. He also could not prevent contact between employees and customers.

    This photo shows a bento boxed meal with sauteed chicken with tomato purchased from Soil Kitchen's vending machine in Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Jan. 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Aoki)

    From there, he began preparing to set up a vending machine. He installed one in January this year, when he was forced to move up his closing time from midnight to 8 p.m. due to the second state of emergency in Fukuoka Prefecture. It has been a hit with workers on their way back home and others who can't make it to the restaurant before the earlier closing time, and elderly customers in the daytime happy that they can easily get a meal without having enter the restaurant.

    Vending machines could become a new central income stream for eateries while at the same time reducing close contact. JiHAN, a vending machine leasing company based in the prefectural city of Kurume is bolstering its new vending machine, while setting up and maintaining more conventional models.

    One of its clients is Hakata Sugaya, which sells "mentaiko" seasoned cod roe in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward. The store started selling its smoked mentaiko and soup for mentaiko hot pot dishes through a vending machine in front of the store in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Japan. It initially aimed to offer its products as souvenirs for tourists who visited the store before its noon opening time, but the number of customers buying food at Hakata Sugaya plunged as infections spread. Since then, the vending machine has become an income mainstay as sales dropped to less than a third of what they were the previous year.

    "The vending machine has helped us meet our minimum sales targets," 63-year-old president Hirofumi Suga said of the response to the vending machine. "There have been cases where customers who bought items through the vending machine would later make mail-order purchases." His store has just installed a second vending machine in the nearby city of Kurume.

    This Feb. 22, 2021 photo shows the "Machihan" vending machine, which sells items such as chili oil, honey and masks produced by local businesses in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture. (Mainichi/Emi Aoki)

    JiHAN advises its clients on how to open a new sales channel through vending machines, adjusts the temperature controls and the size of the slot to adapt them to different products. The company has also given newcomers a helping hand through low monthly leasing fees of between 10,000 and 20,000 yen (about $92-$184), and taken part in selling foods as diverse as handmade crepes, cut fruit and honey. The company says it has appeared in the media, triggering a flood of inquiries starting in autumn last year from prospective clients looking to introduce vending machines.

    In January, JiHAN also began leasing individual vending machine slots for 1,000 yen (about $9.20) per month in its "Machihan Vending Machines" that sells products from local businesses. Some 10 companies selling chili oil, masks and other items have already joined the scheme, and JiHAN continues to accept more businesses. It plans to install vending machines in other prefectures including Nagasaki, Yamaguchi and Tokyo.

    President Shinichi Tsutsumi, 37, looks ahead to the changes in storefront businesses that the coronavirus pandemic will bring.

    "Vending machines' cost performance is high as long as they meet certain conditions," he said. "While many businesses have lost vitality amid the coronavirus pandemic, the movement to save on costs such as rent and manpower expenses will likely accelerate. The needs for vending machine will likely only grow."

    (Japanese original by Emi Aoki, Kyushu News Department)

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