Meet Thomas Bertrand, the French blogger who uprooted his entire life to follow his dreams of living in Japan. Now the CEO of Bento&co, a successful bento box company, he tells us his story.
When Thomas Bertrand arrived in Japan for the first time, he had no idea that he would end up staying for 17 years. What started out as a one-year study programme at Kyoto University turned out to be a life-changing decision that would alter the trajectory of his life when he founded Bento&co in November 2008. With the mission of ‘Making Japan Closer,’ Bento&co is an online store dedicated to selling bento boxes, or traditional Japanese lunch boxes, worldwide. Over a decade later, Bento&co has expanded to include a range of Japanese kitchenware, snacks and furoshiki, a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth, shipping from his store in Kyoto to over one hundred countries worldwide.
Originally from France, Thomas has lived in Kyoto since 2003. Like many others who grew up at the height of Japanese culture influence, he spent his childhood watching Japanese anime and playing video games from Nintendo and Sega. “I was really into all the pop culture of Japan,” he recalls. “When I had the chance to study at a Japanese university, I jumped at it. I thought I’d be here for one year; I’ve been here for 17 years now,” he reminisces. As he navigated life in Japan, Thomas began recording his experiences in his personal blog, La Rivière Aux Canards, a direct translation to Kyoto’s famous river Kamogawa, or ‘Duck River.’ When he first started documenting his time in Japan in 2005, he didn’t expect it to reach anyone outside of his own friends and family. “I was taking pictures of the city and then, slowly, it just became my everyday view, and the community just grew.”
Thomas’s unique take on Japanese culture through a foreign lens attracted the attention of fellow French Japanophiles. As it began picking up traction, Thomas saw an opportunity to bring his readers closer to Japan and its culture: “This blog was quite popular among French people who loved Japanese culture and it gave me the idea – maybe I should try to sell something from Japan. So, I started my online business because of that.”
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He stumbled upon the idea to sell bento boxes, or Japanese lunch boxes, while on a call with his mother, who had seen bento recipes in a French magazine. At that moment, things just clicked. “In my head, it was just the greatest idea,” he laughs. Coining it a “magical moment,” Thomas was positive that the unique bento boxes would become popular with a global market. “People, for their kids or for themselves, need to prepare food. If you use a simple box like a Tupperware to put your food in, it’s just a box,” he explains. “But bento is not only about the taste. It’s also about how the food looks. If you cook for yourself, maybe you’ll enjoy it a bit more.” Thomas also saw the opportunity to target these boxes to a wider audience, wanting to market not only to lovers of Japanese culture, but also those with a culinary interest. “It’s a mix of people who like Japan and also people who just want to cook,” he explains.
His gamble paid off. In less than three weeks, Thomas had set up his shop and, within a few hours of launching his site, Bento&co had its first order. “My first customers were people who read my blog,” he explains. “At that time, in 2008, selling online was not so common and thanks to that, all the bloggers talked about it.” Bento&co also received media coverage in major newspapers and magazines in Paris only a few weeks after its launch, resulting in a surge in popularity that allowed the company to build a sizable following on social media. “For three years, I blogged and blogged and all the friends I made – this network – allowed me to start Bento&co without spending a lot of money on marketing online.“
Thomas attributes his success to the unique nature of his background. “If I was a Japanese guy selling bento boxes, no one would talk about that,” he admits. “But, because I opened a bento box store as a French guy in Kyoto, a month after we opened, we had articles in newspapers.” Now, their popularity has expanded outside of France, reaching audiences in Southeast Asia, USA, Canada, Italy, and New Zealand – and Thomas believes that the craze will only continue to grow. “In 50 years, we will still use bento boxes. They are rooted in Japanese culture.”
Over 10 years on, Bento&co has continued to flourish. In 2012, Thomas opened a brick-and-mortar store in Kyoto and is looking to expand with a bigger selection of Japanese kitchen accessories and supplies. “Being in Japan even after 17 years, there’s something strange or cool or nice I want to talk about,” he says. “Even if I know the country well now, I’m still learning and seeing new things every day.”