Janice Gable Bashman reports on how Ajinomoto Frozen Foods USA, Inc. successfully tackled the United States market, providing high-quality frozen Japanese food products to the American consumer.
America is called the melting pot for good reason: its citizens hail from countries all over the world. This multi-cultural heritage has led Americans to desire ethnic foods, particularly Asian foods. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian-based foods represented in restaurants located throughout the United States. But when it comes to frozen items, Chinese dominates. Ajinomoto Frozen Foods USA, Inc., based in Portland, Ore., capitalized on this previously untapped market by bringing the success the Ajinomoto Group found in Japan to the American market in the year 2000.
It might be difficult to imagine authentic-tasting frozen food that also tastes fresh when cooked, but that is exactly what Ajinomoto provides to its customers. “Our quality and flavor is unsurpassed in the United States,” says Jeff Sakamoto, Director of Sales & Marketing. “We use the freshest ingredients, some you can only obtain in Japan, and cook our food the way it is cooked in Japan. The advantage is that there is nobody else in the market making as authentic tasting Asian food. Our products taste as authentic as you would get in a restaurant.”
THE BIG PICTURE
Today, Ajinomoto is one of the biggest manufacturers of Asian foods, with sales in 23 countries, including the United States, Thailand, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Peru, Europe, Japan, and The Philippines. It is an $11 billion company worldwide, with its frozen foods segment accounting for 10 percent of total revenue. “In Japan, we have the number one retail market sale in that segment,” says President Haruo Kurata.
In order to understand the success of Ajinomoto Frozen Foods USA, Inc., it is important to look at the history of its parent company, Ajinomoto, based in Tokyo, Japan. Ajinomoto had its start in 1909, when it invented and began processing monosodium glutamate, a natural flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of products. As a pioneer in this market, Ajinomoto made its mark quickly, and by 1917 it opened its first United States office in New York. At that time, sales focused solely on monosodium glutamate. In 1962, the company entered into a joint venture with Kellogg’s to make cereal in Japan and also with Unilever to produce mayonnaise and soup for the same market. By 1977, Ajinomoto had opened plants in Thailand, Brazil, Malaysia, and Europe, to process monosodium glutamate as well as other food ingredients. This expansion into other countries also led Ajinomoto to produce amino acids for pharmaceutical use and animal feed. In 1980, Ajinomoto expanded into yogurt production when it entered into a joint venture with Danone.
What started as a company producing monosodium glutamate diversified to produce seasoning, then soups, followed by mayonnaise, beverages and finally frozen foods. Today, Ajinomoto produces a wide array of products including Equal, a sugar substitute it supplies to Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the United States.
AUTENTIC JAPANESE FOOD
Ajinomoto’s philosophy is to “contribute to health all over the world through food,” Kurata says. Ajinomoto produces over 800 million pot stickers (gyoza) a year, shrimp and pork shumai (small, steamed meat and vegetable dumplings in a thin wrapper); rice (both steamed and chicken fried), and rice bowls or donburi, a dish consisting of fish, meat or poultry; vegetables, and other ingredients served together over rice. The rice bowls are available in four flavors: Gyu-don, which consists of beef served over sticky rice; Yakiniku-don, which is BBQ seasoned with vegetables served over sticky rice; Chicken Teriyakidon, which is teriyaki chicken and vegetables over rice, and Currydon, which is beef curry over rice. In addition, Ajinomoto produces orange chicken with fried rice and vegetable chow mein.
“Our strong point is dim sum; pot stickers, shumai, frozen rice products, chicken products and frozen desserts,” says Kurata. “In Japan, we have the technology and the know how to produce these high-quality products for the frozen food market, and we transferred that knowledge and those techniques to the United States market. The United States market is our core market for dim sum and frozen items.”
Ajinomoto values high quality products and utilizes the “advanced technologies from Japan to create the best possible frozen Japanese food,” says Sakamoto. “And the response to our products is extremely positive. You take one of our frozen rice items and microwave it and it comes out like you cooked it on the stove. Our customers are getting quality Japanese food like they’ve never had before.”
A STEP ABOVE THE REST
So, how does Ajinomoto produce high-quality flavorful frozen food items while continuing to meet market demand? By starting with the finest ingredients possible and then utilizing revolutionary technology to produce its products. “We take the extra steps that a lot of United States manufactures don’t,” Sakamoto says. “The technology we have to cook rice and process it is something no one else in the United States possesses. For example, our pot sticker is made with EZ ice (which was invented by our R & D manager Koichi Kunishima). It’s a pot sticker that already has water and oil in it, so all the customer has to do is stick it in the frying pan and it comes out perfect every time. There is no need to add anything. It’s quality in one step.” Quality in one step is especially important in today’s market when customers want fast and easy ways to prepare food without sacrificing taste.
Ajinomoto wants its customers to taste food that is as authentic as they would get in Japan and strives to produce products that not only satisfy the American consumer who is used to Americanized Japanese food, but also Asians who are used to authentic food. “Until you have tried a real flavor from Japan, you wouldn’t know the difference,” says Sakamoto, “but those who have know our products are authentic. We give the American consumer authentic Japanese products and focus our efforts on items they either know, have tasted or have heard of.”
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Right now, Ajinomoto is not a household name, but its products are found in select retail markets such as Sam’s Club and Costco, Kroger, Wal-Mart and in various private labels. They believe with the introduction of its new products it will launch them it into the mainstream. “Our target goal is to be a $100 million company for Japanese/Asian food and to have a strong presence in the retail, food service, club segment, and private label markets,” Sakamoto says. “With the core items we have right now – dim sum, pot stickers (gyoza), shumai, rice items, and meal kits – we are positioned to easily expand to meet our goals.”
Ajinomoto’s research and development department works to consistently improve its products and create new ones to meet the burgeoning needs of a changing marketplace. Most of its research and development personnel are located in Japan, with the United States division consisting of four people. However, information and technology are shared within the company, and this allows it to quickly produce new products, from creation to finished packaging.
“Our time line for new products is a lot shorter than bigger companies’,” says Sakamoto, “because there is less bureaucracy a lot more direct communication between the research and development personnel and myself and the president of the company, so things get done a lot faster. In the near future, you will see a lot of authentic Japanese food coming into the market that is also American friendly. In the past two years, we experienced 40 percent growth for each year, and we expect that rate to continue.”
Next year will mark Ajinomoto’s 100th year in business, and it’s obvious the company is doing something right. With its huge market share and ongoing success, it looks forward to a healthy future. “We know Japanese food,” Kurata says. “And people recognize that we create high quality products.”