Ask just about anybody what new product they're craving, and no one will tell you a toaster. We all have them sitting on our kitchen counters, but probably the only time most people think about the appliance is when your old one breaks and needs to be replaced by a pretty much identical device.
Sure, some brands are prettier or sturdier than others, but it's pretty hard to imagine a device that actually manages to make toasters sexy. But apparently a Japanese company has managed it.
That's according to a fun and fascinating profile of Tokyo-based appliance maker Balmuda and its smash hit toaster ovens that recently appeared on Bloomberg Pursuits.
A magic trick for your bread
Why are the little gadgets a runaway hit in Japan, with customers waiting up to three months to get their hands on one? Bloomberg's Reed Stevenson explains that Balmuda's reinterpretation of the kitchen classic represents a quantum leap forward in toaster technology: "Using steam and carefully calibrated heat cycles, it transforms store-bought bread into something that smells, tastes and feels like it popped out of a baker's oven."
"Steam traps moisture inside the bread while it's being warmed at a low temperature. The heat is cranked up just at the end, giving it a respectable crust," he further explains.
That's essentially a baked good magic trick. No wonder people are excited. So excited, in fact, that they're happy to pony up around $230 for the device, which is "almost five times the price of a regular device in Japan," Stephenson points out.
A winding road to entrepreneurial success
If the technology behind Balmuda's toaster oven sounds appealing, Gen Terao, the company's co-founder and the man who invented the appliance along with his team of designers, comes across as pretty likeable too.
"A high-school dropout who spent his college funds (a life-insurance payout after his mother died) trekking across Spain, Morocco and the Mediterranean," Terao "returned to front a rock band called the Beach Fighters, which broke up after nine years; they had a record contract, but never made it big. To make ends meet, Terao worked at a pachinko parlor (a pinball-style gambling hall) while figuring out his next move," Stephenson relates.
That same drive to create that pushed him towards music eventually drove him to start his own home furnishings business. Only recently did the company pivot to focus on food.
What a success that move has been. "Despite Terao's goal of shipping 10,000 units a month, there haven't been enough to keep stores stocked," reports Stephenson, and that's despite the fact that the "manufacturer hasn't bought ads or aired any commercials since it debuted in June."
Sadly, despite the enthusiastic response from customers, the company isn't planning to expand outside Asia. So if you want one of these magic toaster ovens that claim to transform a standard sliced loaf into something your grandmother would proudly pull from her oven, you're going to have to travel to Japan to get one.
But at least you can take a little entrepreneurial inspiration from the story right here at home. It's possible to reinvent even the most staid essentials, the Balmuda story proves, and if you can manage that feat, it's amazing what customers are willing to do (and pay) to get their hands on a truly innovative product.