Budget cakes sate Japan's sweet tooth in tough times

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan’s economy may be stagnating, but sales of a traditional, fish-shaped sweet snack are going along swimmingly, thanks to its small price and auspicious name.

Taiyaki, which means baked sea bream, is a baked pancake stuffed with a sweet bean jam and served hot.

“Tai,” Japanese for sea bream, sounds similar to the word for happiness and with a price tag of as little as 130 yen (approximately $1.50), the snack, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is making a lot of people, especially the elderly, happy.

“Taiyaki has been around from ancient days but I still want to eat one once in a while,” said Masako Kano, a 69 year-old housewife who was queuing for the pancake outside a new store.

“Compared to other cakes, which normally cost around 200 yen to 300 yen, its price is attractive,” she added.

Fancy Corporation, which operates a chain of taiyaki stores in Japan, recently opened its 45th outlet in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo.

Representative Eriko Yano said the snack was as popular as ever, even during the economic downturn, and was core to the Fancy Corporation’s business.

“In this economic environment, customers prefer products that are low-priced, safe and reliable. I think that’s why the number of our stores is growing,” Yano said. “As people cut back on luxuries, such as dessert, taiyaki has become even more popular.”

Japan’s snack industry association said that while the popularity of expensive confectionery was waning, the demand for low-priced snacks such as taiyaki was rising.

Economist Toshihiro Uchida at UFJ Research and Consulting said taiyaki’s popularity was especially conspicuous in areas with many export-related manufacturers that were affected by the global financial crisis.

“In times like these, products that achieve a high cost to performance ratio rise in popularity. Taiyaki is not only cheap, it is filling and its sweetness satisfies people who are tired and stressed because people tend to crave sweet flavours when times are hard,” Uchida said.

Taiyaki stores are also a relatively cheap business to set up, with shops requiring an investment of about 10 million yen, considerably less than a restaurant, which can cost up to five times more, Fancy Corporation’s Yano said.

“I think the taiyaki boom has to do a lot with the capability that you can buy one or two pieces at a time. The decrease in our income has been serious,” said Michiko Hoshi, a 76 year-old-woman as she queued up to buy the snack.

$1=89.94 Yen