The rich taste of Akita
18:36 JST, March 1, 2022
AKITA — A 24-year-old female tourist from Saitama Prefecture was surprised with the taste and aroma of the thick shiitake mushroom potage she had at Hinata Ekis, a smoothie and soup take-out store in Senboku, Akita Prefecture, in November. She had stopped by the store on the way home from the Nyuto Onsenkyo hot spring area because its pretty wooden appearance caught her eye.
Hinata Ekis, located along National Route 341, is a 10- to 15-minute drive from the hot spring area and Lake Tazawa. It opened in time for the Golden Week holidays last year.
The store, which serves dishes prepared with locally grown, seasonal vegetables and fruits, is closed during the winter season through the end of March. But its products are available on its official website (https://www.hinataekis.com/) all year round.
Store manager Natsuno Maeyama, 24, joined the shop operator Hinata Co. a year ago because she was fascinated by the food of the prefecture. “I’m happy to see the smiles of customers enjoying our food,” she said.
Change of business model
The Akita-based company was originally a travel planning firm called Travel Design Co.
President Hiroshi Susaki is a former hotel employee from Osaka Prefecture. He entered Akita International University in Akita after he passed the entrance examination designed for working people. While studying at the school, he started Travel Design in 2014. His hope was to “help the local community by connecting the prefecture with the rest of the world.”
Susaki organized experience-based tourism activities, such as mountain hiking with matagi hunters and farming, for foreign tourists from South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and other areas. After having 10 customers in February 2020, however, tourists stopped joining the programs due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The number of tourists the company received in fiscal 2020 was down 90% from the previous year. Travel Design barely managed to survive by producing tourism brochures.
With the end of the pandemic not in sight, Susaki decided to carry out a plan he had been working on for some time: producing and selling smoothies and soups. Having met many farmers, he believed vegetables and fruits grown in the prefecture’s climate have a competitive edge.
In April 2021, the company changed its business model to food processing and was renamed Hinata. The store in Senboku was named Hinata Ekis to reflect the company’s hope of bringing the foodstuff of the prefecture into the spotlight, or into “hinata,” which means a sunny spot.
In order to make the most of the quality of the ingredients, water is not used to dilute the soups and smoothies. Artificial sweeteners are not used either. The menu also changes depending on the season, such as a thick smoothie with strawberry confiture and a cold spinach potage.
The potage and smoothies, for which crops with sizes and features that do not fit the standard for retail sales are also used, are priced at around ¥500 to ¥600 per cup. In the first year, with an increase of repeat customers and tourists from outside the prefecture, about 30,000 cups were sold over the counter.
“I wanted to work in a business that makes use of the prefecture’s nature and resources. I’m very satisfied,” said Taiki Endo, a public relations official who has been with the company since its Travel Design days.
In December, the company built a processing plant in Akita City and started selling fruit extracts and frozen potage online.
Through crowdfunding, they were able to raise ¥2 million, double the target amount. The company plans to set up a space for exchanges beside the plant and open a cafe this spring.
The government’s subsidy for business restructuring contributed greatly to the firm’s capital investments. The subsidy is available to small and midsize companies that are expanding into new business fields or changing their business models, and Hinata was able to receive ¥11 million.
Hoping to resume the travel planning business after the pandemic subsides, Susaki aims for ¥100 million in annual sales in the future.
A hot spring inn with which he had done business as a travel firm introduces Hinata Ekis to its guests. “The work we did in the past now supports us in some ways,” Susaki said.
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