On May 26, an online shopping site was launched to bring genuine Italian food and lifestyle products to consumers and restaurants in Japan. The website (http://www.veraitalia.jp/) features products selected by Elio Orsara, owner of the restaurant Elio Locanda Italiana established 15 years ago in the Tokyo Kojimachi area. It is being operated by Royal Tirrenian, a company established just over a year ago by Orsara and Italian entrepreneur Erica Borile.
Borile and Orsara visited Italy to personally select the products, with the aim of introducing consumers in Japan to the authentic Italian taste and culture. There is a gap between the real Italian taste and the image that the general Japanese public has of it. For example, products like Parmesan cheese or olive oil are now being produced in many different areas of the world and are quite easy to find in supermarkets. Nevertheless, olive oils that are not produced in Italy still are being marketed with the Italian flag. The products sold on veraitalia.jp come from relatively small, family-run companies that work with passion and are very attentive to preserving and carrying on their local traditions.
Born in the north of Italy, Borile went to university in Venice where she majored in Asian languages and culture. She came to Japan on short trips in 2002 and 2003 to study the language, and returned in 2007 after graduating from university.
How did you get into the food importing business?
When I came back in 2007, I only planned to stay a few months. I was teaching Italian, and doing some translations and interpreting for Italian companies coming to Japan. I was in Kyoto at that time and it was very nice, but I was looking for more of a challenge. So I moved to Tokyo and worked for a while at the Italian Chamber of Commerce. That’s where I met Elio and we started working together on this new project. He had been thinking to do something new that could promote authentic Italian food, products and lifestyle in Japan. Royal Tirrenian was established in March last year.
What is your business line?
We import Italian products such as wine, olive oil, dried tomatoes, tomato sauce and cheese from the south of Italy for Italian restaurants. We have a very good selection of almost everything you might need to cook good Italian food at home.
How was business in your first year?
Even though last year was not the best time to start a new company, we had some positive results. We approached a lot of restaurants. Elio has a long background here and he knows a lot of people. You start with people you know and they introduce you to potential new customers. It takes time to develop a network and gain customers’ trust. Currently, we are selling to about 20 restaurants in the Kanto area.
Do you sell to supermarkets?
No, we prefer to deal directly with customers. That helps us remain competitive.
Tell us about the online shopping site www.veraitalia.jp.
Quite simply, we wanted to reach the public. We received some good suggestion from Hideki Ogino, a well-known web marketer and friend of ours, on how to build the site and promote it so it achieves a high result on search engines. It has got off to a good start with nearly 90 products available online. It is simple, easy to remember and explains the concept. We also explain to customers where the products come from, who is producing them and why they are 100% authentic products.
We are very proud of offering fresh products like mozzarella, salami and ham. Compared to other high-quality Italian products in the market, the price is comparable, but the freshness is much higher because we have them flown to Japan three times a week. You can receive products 2-3 days after you place an order.
How has the response been since you launched the site?
I am surprised that we got a very good response both in terms of media coverage and from customers. Many people have registered and we took orders early on. I think it will take from 6 months to one year to stabilize. At the beginning, it is natural to have a peak in orders.
How are you marketing your company?
Word of mouth has been the best marketing means so far, and network connections. With our online shopping project, we are considering collaborations with associations or companies, as well as taking part in food fairs and exhibitions.
Is the website only aimed at individual consumers?
No, we also want to deal with privately-owned restaurants, especially for those outside Tokyo where the distribution system is not so good. Often, they cannot get authentic products, so they either have to use something that is not Italian.
What feedback did you get at the launch event?
Many people told me they are looking for quality and freshness. A lot of Japanese people go to Italy and experience regional cuisine there. Then they come back to Japan and are disappointed that they can’t get that same taste here. Or they bring back food but the taste is different from what they buy in supermarkets here.
Japanese consumers have detailed knowledge and are very sophisticated about Italian products. They are so eager to master information about certain products, and one of the attractions of the website is that we can provide that information, whether it is about how ham is produced, or a specific area of Italy.
Are you planning an English version of the website?
Yes, we hope to have it up and running in September.
Have you had to make any changes to product sizes or packaging for the Japanese market?
We won’t change the product because we want consumers to know the real taste. For the size of package, ideally, we would like to provide people with the same size package that is sold in Italy, but we know that in Japan, because of space restrictions with smaller fridges, or people living by themselves, some consumers may not be able to use the whole product in a short time. So we will have to consider changing package sizes.
You mentioned earlier it can be hard to find the authentic Italian taste in Japan.
When we were doing research, we talked with the Italian foreign trade institute and other research institutions. According to the data we collected, for some exports, the percentage of 100% authentic Italian products is 2-3% of what is available in the market. I was shocked.
When the label says Made in Italy, most of the time there has been at least one process done outside Italy. Even if an olive oil is bottled in Italy, it doesn’t mean it comes from Italian olives. With some products, like olive oil or Parmesan cheese, the brand and logo are very Italian sounding and so is the image on the label, but in reality, they are not made in Italy.
What about Italian restaurants?
There seem to be an enormous number of Italian flags outside restaurants, although I wouldn’t say they are all authentic Italian. On the other hand, I would say the quality of some Italian restaurants in Tokyo is world-class.
What are some of your favorite ones?
La Lettera in the Kagurazaka area has good food and reasonable prices, especially for that area, and a very funny and charming Japanese owner who is more Italian than Italians. Another one is La bicocca (Komazawa daigaku area). Beppe, their Italian pizzaiolo, comes from Naples and makes amazing pizzas. I also recommend Trattoria Briccola in Shinjuku-sanchome and Sol Levante in Omotesando.© Japan Today