Have you heard of Pocky? If you're reading this, you probably have. The deceptively simple chocolate covered cookie stick has fans all over the world.
Pocky was invented in 1966 by Ezaki Glico Co. Ltd., a company based in Osaka that was founded in 1929. As of the 2017-18 fiscal year, Ezaki Glico is the second largest snack food manufacturer in Japan, and operates in 30 countries worldwide. Visitors to the great city of Osaka are sure to see the Glico Running Man sign in Dotonbori, which was first put up in 1935 and, except for an interruption due to the war, has been proudly displayed ever since then.
Although Pocky may be their best known product by far, they also make a lot of other much loved snacks, including Pocky's savory older brother Pretz. The original Pocky was a Pretz stick - which in turn was based on hard pretzel sticks - dipped into chocolate. The original version of Pocky was totally coated in chocolate, but that caused a problem since the thin chocolate coating melted easily in the hand. The inspiration for the exposed bit of the pretzel stick underneath is said to have come from an Osaka specialty, kushikatsu - breaded and deep fried bite-sized morsels of meat, shrimp and vegetables on skewers.
Pocky has been a steady hit ever since they were introduced. However, like any product, it has had its ups and downs. They became so ubiquitous that people just took them for granted. The Japanese snackfood market is extremely competitive, and even popular brands don't necessarily last forever. But Pocky has managed to not only survive, but thrive.
One of the strategies Glico uses to keep the fairly venerable snack feeling fresh and 'new' is to keep introducing new flavors. There are some standard Pocky flavors besides the original milk chocolate, such as Almond Crush, Strawberry, Extra Thin, Matcha, Rich Matcha and more - and that's just the domestic varieties in Japan. In addition, Pocky periodically releases special limited editions, which may be only available for a limited time. Occasionally the 'limited editions' are so popular they are added to the regular lineup...but you are never sure if they will be. So, the curious Pocky fan is continuously chasing after the new releases, never knowing for sure if they will appear again.
How is this possible, without making the 'special' Pockys much more expensive than regular ones? Why don't they run into production and inventory issues? This is where Just In Time Manufacturing comes in. Pioneered by Toyoto Motor Corporation, it's a manufacturing process where raw materials are shipped in just when orders are placed, manufactured, and shipped out quickly. The manufacturer carries very little inventory, and minimizes loss. Although you may not hear about it as much as you used to in the days when Japanese companies were the "in" thing in the west, it has become a widespread practice in the snack foods industry in Japan, where manufacturers and retailers are constantly striving to keep the consumer coming back for more. For example Calbee, who dominates the potato chip sector of the Japanese snack food industry, proudly proclaims their use of the Just In Time process on their web site. They have their own transportation system to efficiently ship potatoes to their processing plants, even including a dedicated ship called the Potato Maru.
You can tell where Pocky has manufacturing facilities, and how efficient they are, by the variety of Pocky flavors available. For instance, there are several Pocky flavors sold in Thailand and China; just chocolate and strawberry in North America (unless it's the imported kind); and just a couple of chocolate flavors (depending on the country) in Europe, where it's made and sold with the name Mikado  under license by Mondelez International, which is made up of Kraft Food and other companies all put together. And in Japan, there are so many varieties of Pocky coming out all the time that it's impossible to keep up. Glico is constantly trying to gain new customers or hold onto ones who may have drifted away. The one below for instance, called mysteriously The Goddess's Ruby (女神のルビー), is aimed at adults and is touted as being a perfect snack to nibble on with wine. (I admit I rather love these, with or without wine.)
So there you have it. Pocky is a tasty little snack, but it's also shows Japanese manufacturing prowess and efficiency are still alive. It's not just about electronics, after all.
(This topic was requested by a Tempura tier patron on Patreon.)
Pretz was introduced in 1963, and Pocky in 1966. I actually like Pretz more than Pocky, because I don't have a major sweet tooth. I am not sure why Pretz is not as major, but it is still very popular in Japan. The Pretz marketing division frequently plays up their position as "the one that's not Pocky" in the public consciousness. In 2017, around Pocky Day (November 11th, because it's 11/11 - like a row of Pockys) they even mounted a tongue in cheek campaign asking if they should re-brand themselves as "The one that's not Pocky". ↩
"Maru" (丸) is the suffix commonly given to non-military ships and boats in Japan. Also, I'm not sure if Nestlé Japan uses Just In Tiime manufacturing to produce their multiple flavors of Kit Kats (I have not found any literature that states that) but it's very likely - and also may explain why they don't do it elsewhere. ↩
Mikado is the name of a pick-up-stick game where sticks very similar to Pocky sticks are used. It's not a reference to the Gilbert and Sullivan musical. ↩