Tivoli: The wonderful world of Japanese assorted cookies

By Vicki L Beyer

Let’s face it. There’s no sweeter gift than a box of assorted cookies. And the good folks at Tivoli, headquartered in the Kanagawa hot spring town of Yugawara, know this well. They’ve been specializing in producing gift boxes of assorted cookies for over 50 years.

Surprisingly, gift boxes of assorted cookies is a bit of a niche market, albeit one in which Tivoli commands a top share. And they intend to keep it that way.

Giving the Gift of a Red Hat

The company began by designing gift boxes of assorted cookies for department/grocery chains across Japan, with different branding and stock for each. Since 1980, they also have their own specialty brand, Akai Bohshi, marketed both domestically and internationally.

Akai Bohshi is Japanese for “red hat”. Akai Bohshi boxes are characterized by a drawing of a young woman sporting a red bowler-type hat. The boxes come in seven different sizes and assortments containing between five and 16 varieties of confectioneries, each size box a different color. The “rose cookie”, a butter sable included in the four largest assortments, features the Akai Bohshi red hat as part of its decoration.

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Tivoli's famous box of assorted "red hat" cookies

Tivoli’s gift boxes are particularly popular in Taiwan, where it is customary for couples to announce their engagement by giving some kind of gift to friends and relatives. Between this custom and the Chinese preference for red as the color of luck, joy, and happiness, Akai Bohshi gift boxes perfectly fit the bill. Apparently, couples will pre-order hundreds of boxes of cookies for this purpose. The popular gift boxes are also sold in various other retail outlets across Taiwan. Recently, this popularity has begun to spread to other Chinese-speaking countries in Asia as well.

Expanding the export market

At the same time as it is shipping 130 freight containers of cookies a year to Taiwan alone, Tivoli is also working on expanding its market in other countries as well. Less than 15 years ago, Taiwan was Tivoli’s principal overseas market, with some shipments also to Hong Kong and the U.S., where Tivoli’s products have been largely stocked in specialty Asian groceries. Now Tivoli exports to 21 countries and is determined to introduce its products to “mainstream markets” in the U.S.

According to Satoka (Sarah) Sakamoto, a senior manager in Tivoli’s Trading Department responsible for overseas sales, extensive research was conducted to determine which of Tivoli’s wide variety of cookies will appeal to mainstream U.S. customers and what adjustments were needed.  Tivoli’s unique and popular Kukkia, a cookie sandwich with whipped chocolate in the center, seemed a good fit. Unusually, the “bottom” of the cookie sandwich is a light cookie, while the “top” is a crispy gaufre wafer, on which the Akai Bohshi hat is emblazoned. The resulting flavor and texture has been popular with everyone who tries it.

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Tivoli's popular "Kukkia" cookie Photo: Vicki L Beyer

It turned out there was a challenge to introducing Kukkia cookies to the U.S., however: the whipped chocolate filling. Original Kukkia assorted packages contained four flavors: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, strawberry, and green tea. Market research in the U.S. revealed that many customers were disinclined to buy a cookie assortment containing anything with green tea. In response, Tivoli decided to produce a mint chocolate version for the U.S. market instead. But this made the assortment a bit “chocolate heavy.” So they also replaced the milk chocolate variety with blueberry.  The resulting assortment — dark chocolate, strawberry, blueberry, and mint chocolate — is pleasantly balanced between fruity flavors and chocolate while allowing for colorful and visually pleasing packaging. The original flavor assortment, including green tea chocolate, is still made and sold in Japan and other Asian markets. For those Americans who have a taste for green tea chocolate, don’t worry; Tivoli expects to continue to export the original assortment to Asian specialty stores in the U.S., too.

When the new Kukkia flavors were rolled out at the Chicago Sweets & Snacks Expo in May 2018, they were a huge hit. Hawaiian retailers immediately began placing orders and Tivoli is now working on orders from the mainland as well.

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A promotional image for Tivoli's cookies

Top quality domestic production

All of Tivoli’s 750 cookie and confectionery varieties are produced only in Japan, at three Tivoli factories located in Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. Two other factories handle packing the cookie assortments into their respective gift boxes.

High-quality cookies can be challenging to produce. Tivoli believes that the key to the best possible flavor is using the best quality ingredients. Tivoli’s cookies require not only flour, sugar, butter, and eggs, but also nuts, chocolate, and other flavorings. Says Sarah Sakamoto “When I joined this company, I was amazed to learn there were so many types of chocolate.”

To ensure successful export, the company has also had to meet the relevant standards to get FSSC (Food Safety Supply Chain) 22000 certification, undergoing multiple audits and inspections, as well as satisfying USFDA inspectors.

A female-friend, community-minded company

With its headquarters and site of one of its factories located a couple of hours from Tokyo, Tivoli is important as a local employer and is often the employer of choice for people living in and around Yugawara. It is seen as a working mother-friendly workplace; around 70% of staff are female.

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The team at Tivoli Japan Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Tivoli also takes seriously its role as a member of the Yugawara community.

When the company rebuilt its premises a few years ago, the city asked if they would include a small outlet shop and café that would be an appealing destination for tourists and locals alike. The result is an elegant area on the ground floor that sometimes serves as a community event space. One flight up, visitors can take a mini factory tour, watching cookie production through plate glass windows while enjoying the delicious aroma of baking cookies.

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Tivoli chefs show off their latest creation at the Tivoli headquarters in Kanagawa.

Among the specialty products sold in the shop are sweets featuring the Yugawara mikan, a locally grown citrus fruit. Particularly popular are Yugawara mikan chocolate balls and cream puffs filled with Yugawara mikan-flavored custard and shaped like the citrus fruit. These products are only on sale at this location and a Dynasty store in nearby Odawara.

Yugawara, Tivoli and the sister city relationship

The shop also has a small corner featuring Italian-made products: foodstuffs, dishes, and kitchen items. This area is an homage to Yugawara’s sister city, the original Tivoli in Italy.

While visiting Europe on business early in his career, Tivoli’s founder, Izumi Higuchi, so fell in love with the Italian town on the outskirts of Rome where Emperor Hadrian and other luminaries maintained villas 2,000 years ago that he decided to name his company for it. He was especially impressed by the spectacular fountains at the Villa d’Este, influencing him to choose a stylized image of a fountain as the company’s logo.

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Tivoli's Italian-inspired products on sale

The sister city relationship between Yugawara and Comune di Tivoli is the brainchild of Emu Shima, who handles marketing and public relations for the confectioner. Originally from Fukuoka, Shima relocated to Yugawara after university in order to take this job. Building the sister city relationship as a CSR project for the company enabled her to make friends and become a part of the local community while bringing two communities together to create a substantial international bond.

The launch of the sister city relationship coincided with the inauguration of the confectioner’s rebuilt headquarters in 2016.  Comune di Tivoli even gave the confectioner a gift for its reopening, a tile mosaic spelling out TIVOLI that now graces the entrance of the facility.

As a company, Tivoli provides not only wonderful gift boxes of an ever-evolving array of top quality sweets to an ever-expanding domestic and international market, but it also quality employment opportunities and quality community participation.  What could be sweeter?

For more information on Tivoli, visit http://www.tivoli-cookie.com/corp/index_eng.html.

This is the 12th story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces 12 businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Read more articles from our Japan Business Spotlight: Kanagawa:

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