Bento Box Bingo

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02/26/2012

Neighborhood: Featured, Lower East Side

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Many things are curated in this day and age. Google will happily refer you to “a curated book,” “curated digital apps,” “a curated list of televised soccer games,” a “meticulously curated” fixed-gear bicycle boutique in Paris, and “a curated set of grooming products.” A curated door, such as can be found at 27 Ludlow Street in New York’s Lower East Side, is still unusual.

The door is windowless and made of sheet metal and houses a 20-by-30-by-one-quarter-inch Plexiglas shell. In it at the moment is a geometric print by Christopher Watts, an artist based in Pullman, Washington.

Behind the door is the only firm in New York that delivers fresh-made bento-box lunches. The company, Fuji Catering, (www.fuji-catering.com/) is owned by Toru Furokowa, a thirty-two-year-old Tokyo native who wears black-rimmed glasses and, during working hours, usually has on a Fuji Catering t-shirt, black rubber boots, black leggings under shorts, and a black do-rag. Ten years ago, as an exchange student in Portland, he stayed in Charles’ basement and they got to be close friends.

Back in Tokyo, Toru worked for Azuma, a bento-catering company that had been started by his grandfather in the early 1960s. In Japan, the bento—a boxed meal, comprising many variations—has a tradition stretching back roughly a thousand years and is the predominant form that lunch takes. Azuma is one of dozens of companies that prepare and construct bento and delivery them to the desks of salary men and women throughout the city.

One day about five years ago, Toru was watching a travel documentary on television. It featured the owner of a New York bento company. Toru decided he wanted to work for the company, Fuji Catering, and came to New York with that goal in mind. He made his way to Ludlow Street and met the owner of the company, a Chinese man, who hired him.

“After two or three weeks passed,” Toru says, “the owner told me he wanted to retire and he wanted me to take over the business.” Within months, Toru bought the company, with the help of loans from his family.

He had six competitors at the time, but now he’s got the only bento-delivery game in town. This is mainly because of a drop in demand, he says. The market for delivered bento is made up almost entirely of Japanese expatriates, and when the Japanese economy began to perform poorly, many companies brought their workers back home. Also, he says, “We make a better product.”

Over the years, Charles and Toru maintained contact, visiting each other in their respective cities whenever possible. Last year, Charles says, “I was thinking of how I could expand experiences with art, and have a presence in New York. New York has location. I knew Toru didn’t have customers come to his door, so I asked if I could install a display case. He said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”

The idea was that Charles would solicit work from artists all over the country. Each month he would select one to display on the door, after which that artist could say he or she had shown in New York.

In August 2010, Charles came to Ludlow Street to mount the housing to the door. “I was drilling at one in the morning,” he says. “An anti-graffiti van came by and the guys said, ‘We’re going to paint over that.’ I said, ‘I’m trying to make some art here.’ They said, ‘OK, we don’t paint over art.’”

At the beginning of each month, Toru unbolts the display, removes the top sheet of Plexiglas, slips the old piece out, puts the new one in, and secures it. Toru tweets an announcement of the new piece; there is a place on the door where the artist can leave business cards. To date, no piece on the door has sold as a result of being on the door. However, early on, one was stolen.

“That was lame,” Charles says. After that, he had a video camera installed to monitor activities near the door. There haven’t been any further incidents.

Despite the lack of competition, the bento business is not where Toru would like it to be. The problem, specifically, is the American market, which he has not been able to penetrate. Every weekday he offers three different bento combinations, descriptions and photos of which are on Fuji Catering’s website. Each contains fish; beef, chicken or pork; rice or noodles; and several side dishes. Customers can place orders, online or by telephone, up until 10 o’clock in the morning. (There is no walk-in trade.)

The bento are fresh, tasty, nutritious, substantial, and affordable: .50 to .00 per box, delivery included. Yet although Toru—who creates all the recipes himself and designs each bento according to both culinary and aesthetic principles—has made accommodations to American tastes, offering, for example, meat loaf and potato salad, the bento, with such sides as “grilled bread Erengi,” “Vinegared seaweed, beansprout,” and “Veg and pork wrapped in tofu skin,” still have an exotic feel.»

Bento Box Bingo
A Bento Box from Fuji Catering by Fuji Catering Twitter Feed

Then there is the temperature issue. “Americans want either cold or hot,” Charles says. “Not lukewarm.”

The resistance is especially frustrating because glitzier, generally less authentic, versions of bento are hard to escape these days. Sister, a new place on lower Madison, features the “Lunch Box”—basically an Americanized take on the form. One variety has crab cake, fried calamari salad, and seared tuna for . Sylvan Mishima Brackett, the former creative director of Chez Panisse, offers seasonal bento at his Bay Area caterer Peko-Peko, delivered in bamboo husk boxes; currently on offer is “Fall Chestnut Rice and Minced Cutlet,” at .50 a box. The minimum order is $75.

Even Starbucks has gotten into the act. Since the summer, a lunchtime feature at the chain has been “Bistro Boxes,” and you don’t need the alliteration to figure out which ancient Japanese tradition is being coopted. I asked Toru, by e-mail, what he thought of this innovation. “It has same concept of Bento but much worse than our bento!” he replied. He concluded—and I could almost see him raising his eyebrows over the information superhighway—“That was just salad combo meal.”

About 8:30 on a Monday morning recently, there was steady activity inside 27 Ludlow Street. A couple of dozen dishes, for three separate bento, had already been prepared in the kitchen, which is in the basement. Bento were being put together, on the ground floor, by twelve employees stationed at a twenty-six-foot conveyor belt, which was custom-built last year to Toru’s specification by a company in Texas. Its pace allowed for the assembly of ten bento per minute.

Toru stood at the end of the belt, inspecting each box, adding additional toasted sesame seed if he deemed it necessary, then putting a clear top on each black plastic container and securing it with a red rubber band.

“Human robot,” said a deliveryman who was standing nearby. All of Fuji’s employees are either Japanese expatriates, like the deliverymen, or Hispanic.

At one point, noting that the potato salad portions had become slightly too big, Toru directed a comment toward one of the workers in the middle of the line: “Pancho, pocito menos.”

Toru piled the completed bento on a big table. Deliverymen claimed them, loaded them into giant blue Ikea bags, and over the course of the morning conveyed them, by bicycle, pushcart, subway and car, to 940 customers, most in Manhattan, but also in the outer boroughs, New Jersey, and Long Island.

Presumably, Fuji has fully cornered the Japanese market for bento delivery in New York. But the indifference of the American consumer gnaws at Toru. He lives three doors down from Fuji, with his wife and young child, and spends nearly all his waking hours on bento. One day in September, he went to midtown and handed out brochures. This did not yield dramatic results, but he presses on. Through a venture with a charitable organization called Table for Two, he supplies bento to a restaurant and bakery called Café Zaiya, which has three locations in Manhattan; for each one sold, twenty-five cents go toward feeding children in underdeveloped countries. Today, for the first time, Toru was providing six Table for Two bento to a Columbia University cafeteria.

The educational market is capacious, but six bento are six bento. New inroads are required and Toru is intent on carving them out. “I’ve been trying to contact Michelle Obama,” he said. “The new ‘My Plate’ icon looks like a bento box. Do you know how to reach her?”


Ben Yagoda (www.benyagoda.com) is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of Memoir: A History, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and other books. He blogs at britishisms.wordpress.com.

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