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A 'sauce' of smiles: Japan shop owner finds happiness giving free pizza to needy kids

Seiji Kaetsu, the owner of a takeaway pizza shop that provides free pizza to children in need, is seen in the city of Chiba's Chuo Ward on May 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Shibata)

CHIBA -- "If you're hungry and in need, please feel free to ring the doorbell," reads a message accompanied by cute illustrations and hung at the entrance of a takeout pizza shop in east Japan.

    Seiji Kaetsu, 46, owner of "Kaetsu's delicious pizza shop" located in Chiba's Chuo Ward, has engaged in efforts to offer pizza for free to children since around February 2020. Kaetsu, who turned his shop into a sort of "takeaway children's cafeteria," said, "I can't leave struggling children alone. Kids can't choose their parents, but I'd like to at least cooperate with everyone to provide them with meals."

    Kaetsu worked part time at a freight company as a university student, and dropped out at age 20 to plunge into the world of the transport industry with just one truck purchased with loans. Although there was an instance where he sold off his truck after his business came to a standstill, the company has developed into a large transport firm with about 300 employees and around 300 trucks.

    It was by coincidence that Kaetsu started to make pizza. He began to bake pizza on his own to serve at the freight company's employee cafeteria, which could be used free of charge, and became completely absorbed in the activity. He looked up recipes on the internet and tested them out daily through trial and error. He said that he was able to reduce the cost and time required for making pizza, compared to other existing pizza shops, and noticed that he may be able to turn it into a business.

    Kaetsu recalled thinking that he will make his way into the industry alongside major chains by becoming the "100-yen sushi" of pizza. To kick off the "second round" of his life, he opened the pizza shop in October 2018, and starting in 2019, has entrusted management of his freight company to senior officials, and devoted himself completely to running the pizza shop.

    A sign indicating a "takeaway children's cafeteria" is seen at the entrance of "Kaetsu's delicious pizza shop" in the city of Chiba on May 11, 2021. The sign reads, "I (the owner) am not smart, so I cannot help you with your learning. I also don't have much money, but if it's pizza, bread and sometimes curry, I have plenty. I don't need money. If you're hungry and in need, please feel free to ring the doorbell." (Mainichi/Tomohiro Shibata)

    The menu has been narrowed down to six types, such as margherita pizza, which were chosen by employees of the freight company in a questionnaire. Each pizza costs 1,000 yen (about $9) with tax and come in one size with a diameter of 28 centimeters. Procedures were mechanized as much as possible, and after choosing the type of pizza one wants through a ticket vending machine, customers can receive pizza fresh out of the oven following about a three-minute wait.

    Business has been going well at the takeaway pizza shop, which has earned a reputation for making cheap and delicious pizza. In December of 2019, Kaetsu was moved by how happy children were when he delivered pizza as a Christmas present to a child welfare facility in the city of Chiba, in an attempt to give back to the local community. This inspired him to consider whether there was anything he could do at the shop, which led to him providing free pizza to children.

    Although there are only one or two children per month who ring the doorbell, local customers who saw the sign at the entrance offered to donate money and ingredients.

    Kaetsu said that seeing smiling faces is a source of his happiness, and he has prepared luxury cars like Ferraris and Porsches, as well as campers and other vehicles, as company-owned cars that can be used by all employees at the freight company. The employee dorm can also be used for free.

    "I own a used car designed for the mass public. I don't mind if my wallet is tattered. I like to work and earn money single-mindedly, but my life motto is to 'use money for someone else.'" He has heard from his father that among his ancestors are Kaetsu Gisaburo, who used his personal funds to engage in land reclamation work in the Ariake Sea at Kumamoto of southwestern Japan between the latter half of the Edo period and the Meiji period. "This may be something that's in my blood," Kaetsu said with a smile.

    (Japanese original by Tomohiro Shibata, Chiba Bureau)

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