Wada Bento is starting its expansion into Japan, eyeing Osaka as their first stop.
The bento box – a metal, plastic or even wooden compartmentalised container carrying cooked meat, vegetables, rice, noodles and condiments neatly separated – is one of Japan’s best-known cultural exports.
Students, office workers and picnickers all use these containers to pack their home-cooked meals. But what about those who can’t put together a three-course lunch at home first thing in the morning?
Initially targeting hungry Hong Kong office workers seeking affordable hot lunches, Cyberport-based entrepreneur Jason Chen, CEO of Wada Bento, set up a chain of hot bento vending machines in Hong Kong. The achievement won the firm a place among the 10 finalists in the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s (HKTDC) Start-up Express entrepreneur incubator programme in 2021.
Kamakura Foods Limited, owner of Wada Bento, now plans to move into the home of bento, Japan, setting up an office in Osaka. The firm has raised ¥400 million (US$2.69 million) in 2023 to fund the expansion.
In addition to funding from Hong Kong and Singapore investors New Vision Capital Partners, Gravity Capital Partners, EthAum Venture Partners and Kanada FoodTech, the 2023 funding round also included contributions from Japanese business partner Harada Sangyo.
Mr Chen, said: “This funding round will allow us to accelerate our expansion in the Japanese market. We are grateful to Harada Sangyo, JETRO, and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council for their strong support in developing our business in Japan. We look forward to providing the Japanese food industry with a platform to expand new sales channels.”
The company aims to become a decentralised food service platform through artificial intelligence-Internet of Things (AIoT) hot-chain foodtech and has sought to resolve issues associated with food distribution, mainly in the Hong Kong food market.
Noting that rising raw material and labour costs had made it difficult for the restaurant and ready-made meal industries to continue providing meals to Hong Kongers at the price point they did before, Bento worked to create a food distribution environment, connecting food manufacturers and consumers through its proprietary hot-storage vending machines.
There are currently about 40 machines in Hong Kong and Wada planned to add 20 to 30 machines in schools and construction sites by the end of the first quarter next year.
Mr Chen said Wada targeted economies with high labour costs in the food and beverage industry. They had received enquiries from the United Kingdom and Australia, indicating a potential for expansion.
In Japan, Wada has three demonstration machines in Osaka and plans to have 10 machines in central Osaka by the end of January next year, growing to 100 in Osaka and Tokyo by year-end.
Wada Bento also employs the HaaS (Hardware-as-a-Service) model as its business strategy. The model covers hot-chain bento machines, hot-chain logistics technologies and an IoT backend. Wada Bento said its handling of distribution and sales leaves restaurants free to focus on preparing meals. One-stop service enables caterers to widen their distribution networks and offer food directly in institutions, including offices, hospitals and schools.
The new range of Wada Bento machines integrates AI and tracks and evaluates customer purchasing behaviour without identifying customers. The machines use 5G technology to permit remote monitoring and preventive maintenance, significantly reducing failure rate and boosting customer satisfaction.
Mr Chen said: “Decentralised catering services will emerge as a new trend in the global catering business. Wada Bento is dedicated to decentralising the traditional catering sector, which concentrated on restaurant sites. Leveraging our patents, the hot-chain bento robot converts office buildings, schools and hospitals into mini-restaurants, allowing consumers to purchase fresh, appetising, hygienic and hot meals in 17 seconds."