This spring, Yo-Kai Express ramen vending machines showed up at Tokyo Station, Haneda Airport, and Shibaura Parking Area. During its Japanese debut, the company worked with Ippudo to sell bowls of the hugely popular ramen chain’s noodles through its automated mini-restaurants.
And sell noodles they did. According to Yo-Kai CEO Andy Lin, during the first week, the Tokyo station machine sold a hundred bowls of ramen per day. That strong demand apparently impressed Ippudo enough to not only greenlight more Yo-Kai machines distributing their ramen in the near future, but to also invest in the company.
The news of the expanded relationship was shared as part of a press conference and on-stage session at SKS Japan on Friday in Tokyo. In addition to the news of Ippudo’s investment (through its parent company Chikaranomoto Holdings), Yo-Kai also shared that Japan Tobacco (JT) would be participating in the funding round. JT has a significant processed food business, and Yo-Kai will begin selling the company’s TableMark udon noodles through its vending machines. The total capital invested by the two companies via the Series A round was not disclosed.
According to Yo-Kai CEO Andy Lin, both companies see Yo-Kai as a way to connect to new customers in places where they might not otherwise reach.
“We are their extension,” Lin said. “They don’t need to spend the capital. We are their micro-store.”
Yo-Kai’s Japan country manager Keiji Tsuchiya told me that CPG brands like the idea of using Yo-Kai to trial new food concepts. He said while established food companies with well-known brands might be slow to launch a new product through traditional channels, they can trial new products much more quickly and easily with Yo-Kai. Some, said Tsuchiya, even launch a “virtual” brand concept on Yo-Kai to see how consumers respond.
“For a Japanese food company, selling products with their own name brand is a long process,” Tsuchiya said. “They need to get board approval to start something. It takes one to two years. But with a virtual brand, it’s much easier.”
According to Lin, Yo-Kai plans to expand its Japan vending machine footprint from the current total of three to ten in the near future. They also plan to continue to expand in the US and are talking with other large brands in places such as Korea about entering their market.