December 6, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

Emergence of frozen food vending machines across Japan brings hope for shrinking market

A vending machine selling frozen meals of “mentaiko” spicy pollack roe and “motsunabe” hot pots is seen before the bullet train ticket gate on the second floor of Hakata Station in the city of Fukuoka on July 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Toshiki Inoue)

FUKUOKA — Vending machines selling a variety of frozen meals, including ramen noodles, seafood bowls, broiled eel and cakes, have recently been on the rise across Japan, amid a shrinking market for the country’s signature automated vendors.

Behind this craze is the “Dohiemon” frozen food vending machine, whose total shipments reached 3,000 within around one year since its release in January 2021.

While Japan is known to have many vending machines, those selling beverages, which account for over 50% of all vending machines, have been exhaustively set up in every possible corner, as claimed by an affiliated party. Besides competition with convenience stores and other rivals, the industry also struggles with a shortage of staff who can refill products.

A vending machine selling frozen seafood bowls is seen before a ticket gate at Hakata subway station in the city of Fukuoka on July 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Toshiki Inoue)

Statistics of the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association show that the number of vending machines, including those selling cigarettes, food and tickets, has dropped from around 5.6 million in 2000 to about 4 million in 2021. A string of makers has left the business since the 2000s, and only Sanden Retail Systems Corp. and Fuji Electric Co., both based in Tokyo, are currently manufacturing vending machines to sell drinks and food in Japan.

Against such a backdrop, Sanden, which also handles glass cases for convenience stores, focused its attention on the new field of frozen meals for vending machines. In January 2021, it began selling Dohiemon, which was set up before restaurants and other pandemic-hit establishments were forced to close their doors or reduce open hours. Sales of the freezer vending machines soon took off.

Dohiemon machines accommodate products of varying sizes, based on combinations of partitions built inside, and are capable of selling a wide range of products, including small sweets and large bento lunch boxes. The machines’ structure also makes it easier to refill products, unlike vending machines selling beverages. According to Sanden, it had shipped a total of over 3,000 machines by the end of March this year. In February this year, Fuji Electric also began sales of a freezer vending machine called “Frozen Station,” and has shipped about 500 so far.

A vending machine selling frozen deep-fried horse mackerel is seen before a ticket gate at Hakata subway station in the city of Fukuoka on July 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Toshiki Inoue)

The machines have been set up in commercial facilities, parking lots, and on streets, as well as inside stations, which many people use. In July 2021, Yamaya Communications Inc., based in the city of Fukuoka, which manufactures Hakata’s specialty of “mentaiko” spicy pollack roe, set up a vending machine selling frozen dishes of mentaiko and “motsunabe” hot pots in front of the ticket gates leading to the bullet trains at JR Hakata Station in the city. The firm also set up one machine each on the platform of the Kagoshima Line in June 2022 and the main passageway inside the station in July this year.

A vending machine also appeared inside the city’s subway stations for the first time in July. Sanyo Co., a fishery firm in Fukuoka, set up vending machines selling frozen deep-fried horse mackerel near the ticket gates of three stations, including Hakata Station. A representative expressed delight, saying, “One machine contains 60 products, but we can’t keep up with refilling them because of unexpectedly good sales.”

West Japan Railway Daily Service Net Co., which is responsible for projects inside JR West stations, has also been expanding vending machine services, starting from Hyogo Prefecture’s Amagasaki Station, where it set up a gyoza dumpling machine.

Hitomi Haga, chief public relations representative at Sanden Retail Systems, said, “While the first driving force was the coronavirus, the machines are now spreading regardless of the pandemic.” Confidently she added, “Freezer vending machines will continue to boom.”

(Japanese original by Toshiki Inoue, Kyushu Photo Department)