“Anybody can be a baker with our products”

Rising to the top

Aryzta Japan sees its success leavening


Text by Gavin Blair /  Photos by Benjamin Parks


The frozen, ready-to-bake bread and food group Aryzta can trace its history back to the final years of the 19th century, when the Irish Co-Operative Agricultural Agency Society was founded in 1897, renamed that December as the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society. A century later, the group undertook a major international expansion through acquisitions in Europe and the US. This project culminated in the 2008 merger with Swiss gourmet baker Hiestand — which celebrates a half-century in business this year — as well as the adoption of its current name, Aryzta.

The group logged revenue of €3.88 billion in 2016, with around 95% of that coming from North America and Europe, and the remaining 5% from its growing operations in Asia, Australasia and South America. For the past 20 years, Aryzta Japan has been purveying its range of breads, croissants, pastries, pretzels and cookies to this market, and carving out for itself a growing niche in the competitive local bakery sector.

Managing director of Japan operations Oliver Ryf hails from Zurich, where Aryzta’s headquarters is now located. Ryf describes the company as something akin to a “worldwide bakery alliance” with an extensive range of baked goods and other frozen speciality food.

The Japan branch focuses on offering a “selection of authentic European-style baked goods according to artisanal and traditional recipes from various countries, such as Germany, France, Switzerland and Denmark,” explains Ryf, who worked in the beer and dairy industries before joining Aryzta a decade ago. “We were a pioneer of European frozen baked goods in Japan, which has allowed us to establish a strong sales and distribution network here.”

Aryzta’s products are delivered ‘proofed’, a term used in the industry to describe the final stage of pastries and bread dough preparation before baking. This saves time and effort for the hotels, restaurants and retail outlets, but still allows them to provide the fresh oven-baked experience to their customers. Making croissants from raw dough, for example, adds another two to three hours to the process, according to Ryf. This is often impractical for a hotel serving breakfast from early in the morning.

Hotels are Aryzta’s biggest customers in Japan, followed by restaurants. But it is in retail that Ryf sees the biggest potential for future growth, particularly with in-house bakeries at supermarkets and other shops. The company has already made inroads into the sector with its anko croissant, which combines traditional Swiss lye bread with Japanese sweet bean paste; the locally created offering from Aryzta has become a best-seller at convenience store chain Natural Lawson.

Ryf says he would like to develop more Japan-specific products to compete in what he describes as the “more experimental, playful” local market, but needs to guarantee enough volume to convince headquarters it would be viable to start producing them. “As we get bigger, we will be able to innovate here more in the future.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s well-documented labour shortage issues are proving both a boon and a bane for Aryzta. The difficulties in recruiting skilled baking staff faced by hotels, restaurants and shops only serve to make the company’s time and labour-saving products more appealing, says Ryf. “Anybody can be a baker with our products.”

 

On the other hand, with Aryzta products needing to be kept frozen all the way to customers’ doors, there are challenges with logistics, one of the areas in which the shortage of workers is most chronic.

“We have to make difficult choices with regard to our supply chain in areas outside the big cities,” he explains. “For example, in places such as Hokkaido, we can only deliver once or twice a week.”

As for the company’s own staff, the headcount is now at 60 and growing, all local employees except for Ryf. While there are mostly women in the back office, the sales department is a very male world.

“I would like to hire more ladies to do sales,” Ryf states. “A lot of consumers of baked goods are women, so having the female perspective would be helpful. However, it’s hard to find female sales people, since about 95% of our applicants are male.”

Sales staff at Aryzta also need to act in the capacity of bakery advisers, visiting their customers onsite to help ensure that the end consumer is able to enjoy its products as they were intended. They provide help with matters from presentation to how to adjust the baking process according to the ovens being used, and even how to deal with seasonal factors, such as changes in humidity levels. “It’s a living product and needs to be treated carefully,” notes Ryf.

With the business having grown by around half in the six years since Ryf took over as head of the Japan operations, the company is also looking to move its Tokyo head office to larger premises.

One of the keys to success in the market — beyond the taken-as-read expectations of consistently high quality and food safety — is “playing the long game and avoiding the hard sell,” Ryf says.

“You have to be patient to acquire new customers, especially in the bakery industry; if you push too hard, the door might never open,” he adds. “The decision process for a bakery operation to change its setup from scratch to frozen can be exceptionally long, but once they walk through the door, things move very quickly.” 

“We were a pioneer of European frozen baked goods in Japan”

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