It’s November 23rd, 2008. The year is winding down after the excitement of the Beijing Olympics, Barack Obama winning the US presidential election, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN firing up for the first time. And, on the other side of the world in a cozy little house in Kyoto, Japan, Bento&co was born. Our story starts quite humbly: $300 of stock in a living room, the help of friends and family, and plenty of hard work. We sat down with our CEO and founder, Thomas Bertrand, to reflect on the past 15 years of Bento&co.
What inspired you to start Bento&co?
Thomas Bertrand: My journey began when I moved from France, where I’m from, to Japan for studies in 2003. A couple of years later, I started blogging about life in Japan and new technologies. The blog gained a fair number of readers, which further fueled my fascination with Japanese culture. This led me to contemplate starting an online business to connect with this growing community.
After some consideration, I decided to sell bento boxes and related accessories (essentially, bentos without the food!) online. My love for food played a big part in this choice. Later, I realized that the appeal of cooking and packing food for school or work was universal, but the diversity and charm of bento boxes were unique to Japan. These lunch boxes, ranging from cute to practical, small to large, were significantly more appealing than the typical Ziploc or Tupperware boxes found elsewhere.
Can you share some of the biggest challenges Bento&co faced in its early years and how you overcame them?Certainly! One of our initial hurdles was related to purchasing: our makers required that purchase orders be placed via fax machine, which we didn’t own! Eventually, we bought one, but I’m relieved to see that now, for most makers, things have become more digitized.
Another challenge was shipping. When I launched Bento&co, I had limited knowledge about packing or shipping orders. We learned through some tough experiences, particularly when some bento boxes were damaged during transit. Over time, we mastered the art of carefully packing our items and choosing the right shipping services.
Reflecting back, I believe that starting and selling online was somewhat easier then. There were fewer online stores, less competition, and remarkably, we didn’t even invest in marketing for the first two or three years.
How and when did you discover bento? What was in the first bento you ever ate?
I believe my first encounter with bento was during my first year in Japan. Bentos are ubiquitous here: you'll find them in kids' school bags, at convenience stores, supermarkets, and even being sold on streets near office buildings.
While I can't precisely recall my very first bento, one particularly memorable experience was with a high-end, stylish bento from Doraku, a 380-year-old restaurant in Kyoto famous for its traditional Japanese cuisine.
How has the market for bento boxes and Japanese cookware/food changed over the years?
Over the years, I've noticed a significant increase in awareness and popularity of bento boxes. The global appeal of Japanese cuisine has grown, and with it, the concept of neatly packing and arranging food in attractive boxes has become more enticing to many.
The rise of blogging, followed by social media, and the influence of some renowned chefs have all contributed to spreading this culture, alongside our efforts at Bento&co. This has naturally led to more competition in the online space.
There was a perception by some that the bento trend might be fleeting, but I've always believed it’s here for the long haul. The fundamental love for cooking and eating, combined with the added charm of using a beautiful box, is something I see enduring far into the future.
What are some of your proudest or happiest moments from these last 15 years?
I've been incredibly happy to collaborate with some renowned brands like Pierre Hermé and TOEI (Dragon Ball). Working with such prestigious names and having our products recognized by large corporations is truly rewarding.
But more than that, I think the real achievement lies in our consistency, as reflected in our operations and daily shipping of orders for 15 years. Staying true to our mission since day one and still being here, is something I'm deeply proud of. It’s a testament to our dedication and hard work, as well as that of the Japanese makers and craftsmen that we partner with.
Premium bento boxes made by Hasehira-san, one of the Japanese craftsmen we are honored to partner with.
What is the best feedback you’ve ever gotten from a customer?
One customer once told us something special. They shared that they hadn’t known much about Japan before, but buying a bento box from us made them interested in Japanese culture. They even ended up visiting Japan because of their bento box purchase! It's really cool to think that our bentos can introduce people to Japan, just like how manga, anime, martial arts, or video games do.
What excites you the most about the future of Bento&co?
I'm truly excited about several prospects for Bento&co's future. Firstly, developing more of our original bento boxes is a big focus. We're looking to infuse innovation and creativity into these products.
Another thrilling direction is the idea of expanding our physical presence with more brick-and-mortar stores across Japan. This will allow us to connect more directly with our customers.
We're also keen on collaborating more closely with chefs. One of our goals is to integrate bento culture more deeply into the restaurant scene.
And lastly, there’s something exciting on the horizon–here’s a hint:"Bento and chill." I can’t reveal much about it now, but it's something to look forward to in 2024.
Thank you Thomas for sitting down with us to reflect on your exciting journey of entrepreneurship here in Kyoto, and for leading our team for 15 years!
We’re so grateful to the global community of bento enthusiasts that inspire us everyday with their creativity and their love of cooking, Japanese cuisine and bento culture. We’ve been able to make it this far thanks to you all.
We’d love to hear what your favorite product from Bento&co has been over these 15 years. Let us know in the comments below, alongside any other responses or questions you might have!