If you are a donut connoisseur living in Taiwan or Japan, you must have heard of the independent Japanese donut brand “Haritts.” Acclaimed by CNN as “a new genre of Japanese donuts,” Haritts’ donuts don’t feature colorful coatings, but serve subtler and less-saccharine flavors. The chewy texture, yeasty fragrance, and delicate powdered sugar all made the tempting fried donuts unique, in a Japanese style.
Whether in Taiwan or Japan, Haritts always locates in a small alley in the downtown. Although the donut brand has been very popular for more than ten years since its birth in Tokyo, the founders are so low profile that people barely know who they are. The only thing we were sure about was that the reputation of Haritts became widespread in Taiwan soon after its first overseas branch store opened in 2013 in Taichung, the city located in center-western Taiwan. In 2014, Haritts opened another branch store in Taipei, hiding itself in the side path of the neighborhood close to the Taipei Dome, while still attracting many donut-lovers every day. Even though the store’s rules state that each customer can only buy three donuts at a time, you are very likely to find all donuts sold out by late afternoon.
After moving to Taiwan three years ago, Junji Sakai, CEO of Haritts Taiwan, finally agreed to a media interview and revealed the story of Haritts and his startup experience.
From a food truck to the first store, the “original intention” of Haritts has never changed.
The story started more than 15 years ago in Tokyo. In their early twenties, Haruna and Itsuki Sakai, who are sisters, loved to taste good food together around the city, but they noticed that when the business of a restaurant started to grow, the quality of its food and service also tend to decrease. “Is it possible that we open a restaurant on our own, while maintaining the quality forever, and always make people happy?” This idea deeply rooted in their mind.
Once, the Sakai sisters attended a bakery class together. At the moment when they tasted the bread they baked, — “Yummy!” — they felt the happiness of making food on their own. After two years of working and learning at cafés and bakeries respectively for two years, the sisters bought a small second-hand truck and modified the truck themselves. Naming the brand based on the combination of their first names, “Haritts” was soon on the road.
It was around the millennium, when Starbucks led the trend of coffee in Japan, and independent cafés were still barely found. The sisters started from selling handmade coffee, and soon they considered: “Which dessert goes well with coffee and would be well-received by customers of any age and gender?” Their answer was donuts.
They insisted on always selling donuts made that day. The sisters woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to make donuts, and drove the food truck around Tokyo from 8 a.m. As the husband of Haruna Sakai, Junji Sakai fully supported their insistence from an objective perspective: “All they want is making tasty coffee and donuts for their customers!”
However, running their business from a food truck was even more challenging than they had expected. Heavy rain and the scorching sun would affect the business; let alone bumping into police on the street. Over the first year, the sales were not stable, and the sisters were also too exhausted to continue, so they reluctantly terminated the business.
Returning to their previous jobs, however, the sisters continuously heard that many costumers missed their donuts and coffee. Another year later, they found a house located in a residential area of Yoyogi-Uehara, and thought, “it would be fantastic if we can open our store here!”
Three-donuts-per-customer rule: Insistence on handmade led to limited product quantity.
As the Sakai sisters decided to rent the space, Haritts’ first brick-and-mortar finally appeared (It is still the one and only store in Japan), and customers were able to taste the freshly baked donuts. The simple and warm store hidden in the side path of a residential neighborhood soon became so popular that Haritts had to enforce the three-donuts-per-customer rule. Although the rule also caused some customers dissatisfaction, Haritts still insisted on only selling handmade donuts baked on that day, which naturally limited the quantity of production. Mr. Sakai explained, “The quality of handmade products tend to drop if we make too many at the same time. Our goal is to make good donuts, even if we only sell ten donuts a day. One bad donut might equal the loss of more than one customer.”
He continued, “It is difficult to open a store in Japan. We have to pay a ten-month security deposit, and many related regulations are unavoidable. It was not easy for the young sisters to make a decision to open their own store.” The success of Haritts continued as the quality of the donuts never dropped. Although there were more and more tourists visiting Haritts, the sisters didn’t want to open branch stores overseas if they could not make sure that the quality could be maintained.
Nine years after the opening of the first Haritts store, they finally made up their minds to expand their business abroad. They wanted to locate their first foreign store in their favorite foreign country, and where is that?
“Taiwan!” said the sisters unhesitatingly.
Objectively, they found that there were already quite a few independent cafes and bakeries when they traveled to Taiwan. If a sixty-dollar bagel of “Good Cho’s” could be popular, it meant that Taiwan’s consumers could already recognize the value of handmade products, which implied the market potential of handmade donuts. Subjectively, the sisters were attracted by Taiwanese people’s friendliness, delicious food, and the safe living environment. “In our impressions, South Korea was mainly about browsing Seoul, and Hong Kong was a place for shopping, but Taiwan seemed to have more possibilities for lifestyle.”
Start up abroad at the age of forty: “I don’t want to retire without any true legacy.”
To open Haritts’ Taiwan store, Mr. Sakai decided to quit his job at a foreign company. At the age of forty, he had reached a management position at the company, but he said, “When I looked at the senior executives in their fifties, I thought I didn’t want to be like them ten years later. I don’t want to work for my whole life, retiring without any true legacy. I thought this is my last chance to make a change in my life.” He studied Taiwan’s Commercial Law and startup regulations, and moved to Taiwan with his wife in August 2013. Three months later, the first Haritts store abroad was opened.
Mr. Sakai could not speak Chinese at all back then. Language barriers and cultural differences in business were his major challenges. “There is a gap between Taiwanese and Japanese in terms of work value. People in Tokyo are always punctual at work. One-minute late is not acceptable. On the contrary, Taiwanese employees tend to fall behind schedule if their supervisors are not at spot. As entrepreneurs who started up in a foreign country for the first time, we were really nervous in the beginning.” He smiled and said, “But after living in Taiwan for a few years, now I tend to be late too. I often rush to a meeting and say sorry for being late….”
Located in Taichung, the first Taiwan store was as hidden as Haritts’ Tokyo store. “I had friends in Taichung, and I asked them for help on finding the store location. Although there were not as many independent stores in Taichung compared with Taipei, somehow I felt that there was an atmosphere in Taichung, telling me that it was the right timing to open the store there,” said Mr. Sakai.
Weren’t they worried about having no crowds locating the store in a small alley? “Of course we were worried about it. Very worried!” recalled Mr. Sakai. In the first few days, there were very few customers, so they had to go into the neighborhood, offering free trials around parks and banks. Two weeks later, Mr. Sakai went back to Japan temporarily for personal affairs. “Unexpectedly, I received a phone call from Taiwan, telling me that people began to wait in line for our donuts!”
However, the skyrocketed reputation didn’t distract them from focusing on the quality of their handmade donuts. At Haritts, the ingredients and procedure of production are always strictly reviewed and continuously improved, and it is the detailed procedure that distinguishes Haritts from other competitors.
For example, to reach the best-balanced chewy texture, the dough has to be fermented two to three times based on the temperature and humidity on that day. Also, according to Haritts’ staff, the five-minute frying step is particularly crucial. When the dough is shaped into round donuts and fried under low temperature, small puffy air bubbles often appear on the surface. In order to make the surface of the donuts smooth, the staff has to use small sticks to pierce the air bubbles one by one. After removing the donuts from oil and placing them on a wire rack, the staff always makes the extra effort to drain the oil from the donuts by using blotting paper and then wait until the donuts cool, before dusting powdered sugar on them.
His startup experience brought him all the stimulations that can’t be bought.
“Now when I go back to Tokyo for ten days, I start to miss Taiwan,” said Mr. Sakai, who was surprised by how he has been deeply engaged with this island. “In Tokyo, if you do nothing, you seem to lose your position in the society. But in Taiwan, it is easier to be yourself, even if you don’t seem to be really doing something. It is still rare for Japanese people to follow their passion and start their own business. The economic pressure of living in Japan, especially in Tokyo, is huge. Although the average salary is higher, the living cost is much higher too. Moreover, in Japanese society, people care so much about what they wear and what they use, and they also judge each other based on these things. This might be a good thing in terms of cultivating a refined culture, but it also makes many people spend more than what they can really afford.”
Looking back to all the choices he had made, Mr. Sakai felt that quitting his job at the foreign company and starting his own business abroad was the correct decision. Through the years of working at the same place before, he found his vision became narrower as he kept working with the same people around him. After becoming an entrepreneur, he met different people every day, and the challenges of starting up abroad brought him all kinds of stimulations, which “can’t be bought by money.” He smiled and added, “but I still want money too….”
Starting up also gave him the opportunity to make use of his drawing talents — He created all the illustrations on Haritts’ promotional materials. You can see a chubby and dumb-faced lizard, a donut man with a big nose, and an amiable grandma and grandpa holding hot tea in their hands. The mix of real and surreal characters depicted with simple lines and a childlike mind creates a sense of humor and coziness. “I have never learned how to draw. I just draw in the way I like,” said Mr. Sakai. His drawings also reflect the brand personality of Haritts — simple and warm, which has never changed since ten years ago.
“In Japan, we respect artisanship. We believe that as long as we keep focusing on what we do, we will make it better and better. What we focus on is making donuts, and that’s all we do. Just like Japanese Dorayaki has been popular for hundreds of years, we hope that our donuts will taste as good as they are now many years later. We are confident that Haritts’ donuts are the best in the world!”
In the ever-changing culinary scene, Haritts’ spirit of persistence seems to be so rare and valuable.
About Junji Sakai
Having the experience of studying abroad in the U.S., Sakai has developed his career in various industries from media, fashion, agriculture and commodities for more than fifteen years in Japan. While supporting his wife and her sister in building their donut brand “Haritts,” he often invited international friends to taste their donuts, and believed that the happiness that donuts can bring to people is beyond cultural borders. In 2013, he determined to quit his job at a foreign company and opened the first Haritts branch store in Taichung, Taiwan, followed by the second store in Taipei in 2014.