Tokyo >> It’s Japan’s top-selling popsicle — yet still virtually unknown overseas.
At about 65 cents, it’s also one of the cheapest ice candies sold in convenience stores. Around 400 million of these frozen treats are consumed annually, which averages to three or four per Japanese resident each year.
It’s become a common sight to see children and suit-clad salarymen alike ripping open the plastic wrappers and biting into the colorful bars during the scorching heat of summer. And now, increasingly, consumers don’t seem to care what the mercury reads to enjoy these frozen desserts.
Meet Garigari-kun, with garigari being both an onomatopoeia for hard and crunchy and the name of its instantly recognizable mascot, a middle schooler with closely cropped hair and big teeth.
Since its invention in 1981, the multiflavored ice pops, including recent variations with a layer of ice cream on the outside, have drawn a cult following, growing into ice-cream-maker Akagi Nyugyo Co.’s flagship product.
In an industry dominated by confectionery giants including Lotte Co., Ezaki Glico Co. and Morinaga Milk Industry Co., Akagi Nyugyo stands out for its edgy and often self-deprecating marketing strategy that has set it apart from its bigger rivals. And its success mirrors how the entire ice cream market is growing, as cold sweets are no longer a seasonal product but something eaten year-round.
“Summer is still our peak in terms of sales, but in recent years it’s become a trend to eat ice cream during winter as well. People like to cozy up under a kotatsu while they eat Garigari-kun,” says Fumio Hagiwara, a marketing executive at Akagi Nyugyo, referring to a traditional Japanese household heating appliance featuring a coffee table, blanket and a heat source. Hagiwara says winter ice cream sales for his company grew by 20 percent between 2014 to 2017.
Akagi Nyugyo has released several flavors this winter, including a banana and cookies with vanilla. They are among the dizzying number of Garigari-kun flavors, some of which became a sensation because of shock value.
In 2012 the Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture-based company made headlines when it released a corn potage, or cream of corn soup, flavored Garigari-kun. To the surprise of market observers, it proved to be a hit and immediately propelled Akagi Nyugyo into the national spotlight.
Akagi Nyugyo, whose corporate slogan is “Asobimasho” (let’s have fun, or let’s play), didn’t stop there.
In 2013 it released a Japanese-style white cream stew Garigari-kun, followed in 2014 by its most controversial product: the napolitan-flavored Garigari-kun, based on the Japanese spaghetti dish of a ketchup-based sauce, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and bacon or sausage.
“Our team came up with that idea,” says Hagiwara. “But it bombed. It really did taste like napolitan but wasn’t palatable.”
That failure set Akagi Nyugyo back more than $2.5 million, but also cemented its image as a risk-taker willing to challenge conventional norms.
The business, founded in 1931, has come to capitalize on the slightly off-beat, comical image it has nurtured over the years. A television commercial for its Sof ice cream, for example, shows a young woman wearing a miniskirt and dancing. Her head, however, is replaced with that of a balding middle-aged man with a mustache (bit.ly/akagicommercial).
The wacky 15-second clip went viral, spawning online speculation about the identity of the man and the purpose behind the odd commercial — perhaps the kind of response Akagi Nyugyo wanted.
“It’s been our corporate philosophy to remain an industry outsider,” Hagiwara says. “And it’s nothing new. We’ve released unconventional ice creams in the past, including ramen, curry and ikura (salmon roe) flavors.” More recently, its melonpan (a Japanese sweet bun shaped like a melon) Garigari-kun released in 2016 proved to be a hit.
That’s not to say Akagi Nyugyo specializes in making bizarre frozen desserts. It’s most basic soda-flavored Garigari-kun in its iconic bright blue package remains the most popular out of all the Garigari-kun popsicles.
Akagi Nyugyo traces its roots to a mom and pop restaurant selling shaved ice. It was later incorporated and in 1964 released its first major hit product, the Akagi Shigure strawberry-flavored shaved ice sold in plastic cups. In 1980, it began selling Akagi Shigure in popsicle form for ease of eating, and the following year debuted Garigari-kun, which initially came in three flavors: soda, cola and grapefruit.
This was also around the time when the number of convenience stores in the nation began growing rapidly. Akagi Nyugyo concentrated on establishing a distribution channel in convenience stores, producing original tie-up products that could only be purchased at these chains.
The plan worked, enhancing product exposure and driving revenue. The company now employs 390 staff, and its annual sales has doubled from $194 million in 2006 to $415 million in 2017.
To boost production capacity Akagi Nyugyo built a new factory in 2010 that has also become a popular destination for factory tours, where families can observe the entire process from molding to packaging and buy numerous Garigari-kun-themed paraphernalia at a shop.