Once a month, the drivers of Hokkai Suisan – Japanese for North Sea fishing – go out to deliver fresh-frozen fish products to private individuals in Europe. From pickled mackerel to salmon steaks marinated in sake.
Popular with Japanese expats
These Japanese-made fish products are mainly ordered by Japanese expats and delivered to them in special freezer trucks. Be it Vienna, Prague, Paris or Munich. “For example, about 150 orders go to Paris every month. Our driver is then in the city for four days to go through all the addresses,” says Marinus Noordenbos, founder and CEO of Hokkai Suisan.
From time to time he also drives himself, because he likes to maintain contact with the customers. Noordenbos is fluent in Japanese, something he taught himself when he spent a year in Japan as an eighteen-year-old to work at a fish processing company.
Tall Dutchman among the Japanese
Noordenbos soon had enough of school as a teenager. After high school, he did not want to continue studying. He wanted to do something with his hands. His father, owner of a shipping company in IJmuiden, was already selling horse mackerel to Japan at the time. A fish that is hardly known to us, but is very popular there.
A job was arranged for him in a Japanese coastal town and not much later the tree-tall IJmuidenaar – Noordenbos is two meters two – was filleting fish in a production hall together with eighty Japanese employees. “An orange box was put on the table for me, because I was of course much too big,” he says with a laugh.
‘Beautiful’ he thought it was. Only problem: he didn’t speak a word of Japanese when he left and something had to be done about it quickly, because Noordenbos likes ‘to talk and get to know people’.
Selling fish from the trunk
In just three months he mastered the language. A few months later, he met his current wife. The Japanese traveled with him back to the Netherlands and together they started the company in 1993.
“It started with the horse mackerel. We prepared it in a Japanese way and sold it to Japanese in the area,” he says. Then he parked his Seat Ibiza in front of the Japanese school in Amsterdam with a trunk full of fish. “And there they lined up to buy that fish from me.”
The product caught on and Hokkai Suisan expanded the range. The customer base also grew through word of mouth. “First Rotterdam was added, then we also received a request from Düsseldorf, which has a large Japanese community.”
Applause in Duesseldorf
Noordenbos remembers that first transport abroad well: “We had exactly two orders from Düsseldorf. Then I rented a freezer truck and drove there.” A large bus for two orders. “It didn’t make sense. But when I got there, the bus opened and there was such a cloud of freezing cold coming out, the Japanese were clapping. That was really fun.”
From that moment on it went by itself. “That news then circulates. Just like the Dutch in Canada also come together and tell each other where you can buy the sprinkles.”
But for Noordenbos it is not yet possible to sit back with satisfaction, because he believes that his products should be able to reach more people than just the Japanese communities. But then, how do you get the Dutch to the fermented ‘black cod’ or the kingfish jaw. Because what the farmer does not know…
Restaurant on business park
A sushi take-away shop was opened with the aim of making people enthusiastic about other Japanese fish products that they can easily grill at home. “Because Japanese cuisine is of course much broader than just sushi. Only the tip of the iceberg is known here,” says Noordenbos.
In 2010, his popular restaurant Hokkai Kitchen opened right next to the factory, in the middle of an ugly business park, which doesn’t stop people from driving to IJmuiden. “Sometimes they come in here completely blown away”, laughs Noordenbos. “What we notice is that the location is not a barrier. When it comes to something that is good and tasty, the customers come naturally.”
It has also not gone unnoticed by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that Noordenbos is putting Japanese cuisine well on the map with his company. At the beginning of this year, he was therefore officially appointed as Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador.
Noordenbos is the first Dutchman to receive this honorable appointment and he takes his title very seriously. “I’m really going to work on it.” For example, by organizing open days where people can come and taste all kinds of Japanese dishes.
His mission statement is clear: “A restaurant is nice to have, but my main concern is getting people to eat Japanese at home.” Just as we naturally prepare an Italian pasta or put Spanish tapas on the table, Noordenbos also wants Japanese cuisine to enter our system.