Since Covid, there’s been a trend toward private travel instead of large tours. People are looking for private food tours and cooking classes just for their group. Over the next few years, private experiences will become more popular.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Serkan Toso.
Serkan Toso is Co-founder of byFood. Originally from Bursa in Turkey, he is the youngest of eight siblings. Growing up in Bursa, he worked hard in his vocational high school to make sure he received the best education he possibly could, which led to him attending a prestigious university in Istanbul to study management information systems.
During his time attending university he worked with the Euro Mediterranean Youth Foundation, which facilitated exchange projects that allowed him to travel and see the world — something he was unable to do previously due to the cost. Serkan excelled in this organisation, eventually becoming its secretary and then vice president.
After graduation, unsure of exactly what he wanted to do, Serkan’s interest was piqued by an eBusiness management degree in Japan. Feeling it could be a fit, it was the only course he applied to and he was accepted in 2015, despite the fact that he knew very little about Japan at the time. The course was in an international school, meaning study would be through English, despite its location in a rural, mountaintop area. Less than 30 of the students were Japanese, and the group found that when they went out with his classmates, a Japanese person was needed to make any reservations or arrangements as almost all restaurants were deeply traditional, with no online booking systems or assistance available to non-native speakers.
Later, in Tokyo, Serkan noticed the same problem he had experienced whilst studying in rural Japan, with restaurants being very traditional and inaccessible to non-natives. It was this personal obstacle that served as the inspiration for what would eventually become his business.
ByFood.com is Japan’s one-stop platform for food loving travellers. Through its unique software capabilities, users can book one-of-a-kind food experiences such as authentic cooking classes and food tours and make restaurant reservations, no Japanese language required. They can also access an umbrella of information on Japanese food trends and culture and watch informative videos featuring Japanese chefs and craftspeople. Through its reservations systems, byFood works toward the greater good by raising money for charitable projects, with a portion of each experience booking and paid restaurant reservation going toward the project. Founded by Serkan Toso and Kaoru Joho, byFood offers over 300 programs across all of Japan, helping visitors experience the country’s rich culture and history like never before. For further information, please visit: https://www.byfood.com/
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It all started when I attended One Young World in South Africa. Listening to the inspirational stories of young people contributing to their communities made me want to start my own business that helped society. With this idea in the back of my mind, I came to Japan to get my master’s degree before starting work at an e-commerce company.
As a foreigner in Japan, I personally experienced the language barrier at restaurants, and at first I was dependent on Japanese people to help me. Since so many people come to Japan specifically for food, I saw an opportunity to help them so they could enjoy authentic Japanese food experiences. This mission resulted in byFood.com, a platform for Japanese food experiences, restaurant reservations, and e-commerce. The platform features a donation system, too. For every guest, we donate 10 school meals to children in need.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Meeting my business partner, Kaoru Joho, was such a chance opportunity! After I started my business, I was looking for PR opportunities and was interviewed by My Eyes Tokyo. It just so happened that they knew someone who was doing the exact same business, but for the Japanese market–and they introduced me to Joho. At the time, she was running Tablecross, a restaurant reservation app in Japan that also donated 10 meals to children in Cambodia. It was such a big coincidence, we decided to merge and work together. It was really lucky that we could meet, and totally changed the course of our businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on when we had just started the business, we were mainly focused on growth, and weren’t as aware or concerned about legal issues that might arise. We were amateurs at the time, and brought on interns to help us in business development, marketing, and content. As a totally transparent company, we shared a lot with our interns and relied on them with full trust. After one of our interns went home, we got an email from her saying that she was starting her own competing business in her home country. It came as a complete shock to us! So that’s when we realized the value of the non-compete clause–a very valuable lesson.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
This is a tricky question for me to answer. I can say, as much as possible, use the global sources that you have–like freelance platforms around the world. I always try to delegate some of the things that I can’t do myself, so I’ll find project-based people who can help. Short term hires from global sources have turned out to be great for us. For example, one of our best hires was Esteban, our video editor. We connected on Upwork, but didn’t hear back from him for a while. I found his profile online and chased him down, because I saw how talented he was. I convinced him to start part-time for us, and now he’s a full-time employee. Those short term employees can turn out to be the strongest team members.
Another related tip is finding the right partner early on. Web development is quite challenging for companies like us — we have lots of issues to deal with like bugs. In our case, we’ve worked with the same development company since the beginning, so they feel the same responsibility for the project. This is key to success. I would have burned out for sure without a good partner in development.
Of course, it’s also important to balance personal life, but that’s easier said than done. Mainly, long-term, reliable partnerships have helped me to not burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m very grateful to the first person who helped me start byFood, back when it was still “Tokyo by Food.” As a foreigner, it is quite challenging to start a company in Japan. To begin with, I only had 500,000 yen, when Japan requires 5 million yen in capital to start if you are a foreigner. I had pitched my idea to some of my friends, and one Turkish friend, Vaner Alper who is the CEO of Stramanagement Corporation in Japan supported my idea. He helped start my business as one department of his company, and helped me with legal and financial things. I couldn’t have started without him. He had 10% stakes in the company, but never took it, even after the merger with Tablecross.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
In 2020, we started a restaurant reservation system in Japan so that people could make reservations without Japanese. It uses a robot call system, which helps bridge the language gap. Guests fill out their desired reservation details in English, and restaurants receive an automated robot call to notify them of the request in Japanese. Out of the 850,000 restaurants in Japan, more than 90% only take phone reservations, so this robot call system is an important innovation that helps foreign travelers access more restaurants in Japan.
Also, we started e-commerce so that after tourists return home, with good memories of Japan, they can still enjoy similar culinary experiences at home. This service also helps small farmers and producers, many of whom don’t speak English or do marketing, reach global customers. The dashboard is in Japanese, and there’s a 1-click shipping function. They simply need to print out the shipping label, affix it to the package, and send it off. The product pages are created for them for free, and the customer service is also free. Their one job is shipping packages.
Additionally, our one-stop food platform is an innovation in and of itself–with food experiences, reservations, gourmet products, and food media such as YouTube and our blog. No other platform can provide this scope of service in Japan.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
The language barrier is the main pain point we address–both for foreign tourists in Japan and for Japanese businesses hoping to market to foreign tourists.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The global industry right now is doing very generic travel. GetYourGuide, Viatour, Expedia — they have everything. Meanwhile, byFood is fully specializing in one part of travel–food experiences. I feel like there might be a movement from generalist to specialist. By focusing on one target group, you better respond to their problem and help them. How can TripAdvisor help everyone, with their different needs, at the same time?
COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share Five examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
- Since Covid, there’s been a trend toward private travel instead of large tours. People are looking for private food tours and cooking classes just for their group. Over the next few years, private experiences will become more popular.
- There are more and more experiences focusing on dietary restrictions–many vegan cooking classes, for example.
- People want off-the-beaten-path experiences. Now we get bookings for our experiences in relatively unknown places like Mie and Hachimantai. Many people want to see a different side of Japan and connect with local people.
- With the wealth gap increasing, there is more demand for luxury experiences right now. For people seeking something really unique, money is often no issue.
- Social media culture has also impacted travel. Short form videos change the way people travel, with normal people becoming influencers called “nano influencers” (with less than 5000 followers or so). It’s similar to getting a suggestion from a friend; they feel more trustworthy than big influencers.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Being in the travel industry, now wherever I go I make sure to join food experiences there. That’s one tradition. Even when I recently went to Los Angeles for a business trip, I joined a food tour, visiting local eateries–delicious places where locals actually eat.
In Barcelona, my wife and I joined a cooking class and made our own paella and sangria. We weren’t only eating the food, but learning how to cook it and eventually make it at home. We also did a yacht tour around Barcelona, tasting local cava, the “Spanish champagne.”
Joining food tours and cooking classes is also an easy way to make friends in a new city. We met so many people from different countries, even just waiting in line for food–it was really cool. Food makes people come together.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Last year I was in Obama, Fukui prefecture as a consultant to create an experience centered on food and wellness. There, at a really beautiful temple in the middle of a forest, there’s a garden with a hundred types of vegetables being grown. You can visit the farm, pick some vegetables, and bring it back to the chef who makes a shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) meal for you to enjoy. In the morning, you go to the temple and meditate, after which you have a shojin ryori breakfast with a view of nature.
Just being there, in these local places — walking through the forest or hiking up a mountain — you feel a sense of wellness. That’s why we make efforts to create experiences in lesser-known parts of Japan, to introduce people to experiences with locals. It feels really good, like people can heal here with food, meditation, and nature.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
All our success directly contributes back to society. When we started this business, it was always in combination with the Food for Happiness program, which donates 10 meals per guest in a booking or reservation. We’ve supported a variety of projects over the years, sponsoring school nutrition workshops in Cambodia, community vegetable gardens in South Africa, and more. Today, we’ve donated the equivalent of 380,679 school meals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Wherever you travel, even if you like big cities, try to go at least one hour away from that main city. Take a day trip from and compare both places, connect with locals, and try local food. This will help improve local economies there and give you a different perspective than if you’d just visited the main city.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!