Perfectly made toast isn't just an obsession in Japan. It's a business opportunity.
Over the past few years, there's been a quiet boom in the pursuit of expertly reheated bread, from high-end toasters and premium loaves, to cafes catering to connoisseurs seeking that satisfying crunch.
Joining the fray is the next best thing for sliced bread, a toaster designed for just one task: making a single piece of toast, flawlessly. Made by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., better known for its workaday refrigerators and rice cookers, the Bread Oven hit store shelves last month, retailing for about 29,000 to 30,000 yen (US$270). While that might seem expensive, Japanese consumers are already used to paying top price for toasters; the popular Balmuda, which debuted a few years ago, sold for about US$230.
“We wanted to focus on the single slice, and treat it with respect,” said Akihiro Iwahara, who is in charge of technical development at Mitsubishi Electric's home-appliances division. “Our technology and know-how from rice cookers helped us come up with a way to trap and seal moisture.”
That’s crucial. Balmuda's toaster uses a small amount of water to keep bread from drying out. Mitsubishi Electric's Bread Oven uses a different method, sealing a single slice inside a metal box and transferring heat through two plates at temperatures as high as 260 degrees Celcius (500 degrees Fahrenheit).
There's nothing more enchanting than the perfect slice of toast, says Kaori Kajita, founder of the Japan Butter Toast Association, which sounds half-baked but actually exists. “You can't help but be elated.”
It helps that bread in Japan is tailored for toast. Called shoku pan, Japanese-style square bread has been around for years (think of a high-quality version of Wonder Bread). The toaster boom has its origins in the desire to have soft, chewy bread that tastes and feels like it came out of a baker's oven, Kajita says.
To satisfy the demand for dough, businesses are coming up with new products and services. Sakimoto, a bakery specializing in shoku pan, takes reservations for their carefully baked loaves that cost US$8.20 apiece. Centre the Baker, a cafe in Ginza, lets diners choose a personal toaster to take and use at their tables.
Behind the toast boom is a broader shift in eating habits. Although a traditional Japanese breakfast might consist of rice, grilled fish and miso soup, it's becoming less common these days. A slight majority of people — 51 per cent — actually prefer bread in the morning, according to data compiled by NRI Group.
That includes people like Masahiko Shoji, 42, a university lecturer, who said he eats more bread after buying a Balmuda. He’s eager to try out Mitsubishi Electric’s new high-end gadget. “You can’t go back to a regular toaster,” he said.
The Bread Oven is shaped more like a waffle maker. As a result, clamshell design isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to rolls or baguettes. It can handle cheese or even an egg on top, though, and the french toast is sublime. Clad in faux-wood veneer, the gadget is meant to be used at the dining table, not the kitchen counter.
“Given Japanese tastes, there are a lot of people looking for a refined and delicate experience,” said Hiroaki Higuchi, general manager for marketing at Mitsubishi Electric’s home-appliance unit. “We're not asking customers to get rid of their toasters, but to enjoy this as an entirely different category.”
--With assistance from Yuji Okada