May 14, 2019


by James Farnell

A Taste of Japan

A flexible event space offering a community program for cookery classes & calligraphy lessons. Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

The story of a Japanese grocery brand offering a far more localized experience, one that provides customers with a sense of ownership and belonging in it’s new Californian neighborhood.

Tokyo Central Market’s parent company Marukai Corporation embarked on this project with a clear mission – to create a new experience for locals that celebrates the fusion of Californian-Japanese culture in the heart of Orange County’s Yorba Linda. The client’s vision for Tokyo Central was to become the area’s go-to destination for high-quality Japanese food and specialty items at affordable prices. Perhaps more importantly, to connect with the community in a meaningful way, by offering an authentic Japanese cultural and inter-generational experience.

Localized graphic murals for Yorba Linda provide a backdrop to the Bakery. Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

At Little, we believe that design has the opportunity to create a better future for people – that retail environments have an opportunity to offer far more that a simple product or service offering. What we know, from our experience working with retailers across the full spectrum of the retail industry – is that customers have a growing appetite for retail with a more culturally enriching, experiential accent. They want an authentic story – they are searching for meaning and greater depth to brands offering a more curated product selection. Tokyo Central responds to this with a unique experience that can be enjoyed by the whole family, one that educates and inspires the neighborhood with a localized design solution.

Traditional raised ‘Horigotatsu’ seating provides a unique dining experience in the foodcourt. Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

Tokyo Central Market is a fine example of how multi-disciplinary design can have a powerful impact on the businesses, customers and communities we serve. Beyond the grocery experience, the project fosters connections between east & west, young and old – through the sharing of recipes, the craft of calligraphy, unique ingredients and signature moments, from cookery classes to store tours that Tokyo Central offers local language schools. To that end, the team were very specific regarding the need to create a retail environment that would be inviting to the community and create a sense of ‘ownership’ for the locals of Orange County – through the programs, offerings or environmental graphics used throughout the store.

Custom graphics woven into the interior design to further localize the design.

The resulting prototype design allowed Tokyo Central to ‘transcend the transaction’, to accurately reflect the exchange between grocer, neighbor and culture, while helping create a unique community experience. Their commitment to craftsmanship, combined with fresh aesthetics and thoughtful merchandising, provide an environment that entertains, educates and excites.

Japanese sake & beer tastings adjacent to the community event space. Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

The project required a hyper-collaborative team approach in order to successfully create a fusion between the cultures of Japan & California. Our team were regularly prompted to take a closer look at each element, to engage the customers senses with an interplay between organic and inorganic materials, to be cognizant of the positive vs. negative space, or rather, the yin and yang, and to appreciate the sense of craftsmanship in everyday food preparation. The client also conveyed that the new space should emulate an overall sense of Zenand Joy. We leveraged this ideal as a common thread that would connect each separate entity within the store, and connect them together into a cohesive, collective calm. Our ultimate goal was clear: to design a new fusion market that remained true to the brand’s heritage and cultural mission, while adding a Californian spin that places customers first.

Dual layers comprised of a transparent and textured Washi fabric are reminiscent of the markets of Tokyo.

The core inspiration was derived from the traditional, vibrant outdoor markets of Japan. The prototype design’s wayfinding and interior signage banners pay homage to these markets in particular. Dual layers comprised of a transparent and textured Washifabric are reminiscent of the markets of Tokyo. They incorporated bilingual text, in both English and Japanese, to signify a fusion of cultures, and pragmatically, to help guide the American shopper in an otherwise foreign environment.

A unique 1964 Daihatsu ‘Midget’ 250cc delivery truck – sourced on a farm near Osaka.
Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

In recognition of the year the company was founded, the store design features a 1964 Daihatsu ‘Midget’ 250cc delivery truck – sourced on a farm near Osaka like many of the ingredients imported to California. The truck spent 3 months in customs and was allowed through as a ‘museum’ piece before being restored – the first of it’s kind to land on the docks of North America.

Yorba Linda customers now clearly identify Tokyo Central Specialty Market as much more than the new grocer in town; they see a local, authentic, community-centered brand focused on bringing people together.

Customer register lanes named after Japanese neighborhoods. Photo Credit: Henry Cabala

How can your brand experience be enriched by the stories behind the products you curate, the attitude of your staff and the personalization of your unique service offering?


James Farnell

James is a designer with a passion for problem-solving that came from crafting furniture and products in workshops in England to creating more than 75 brand experiences in over 12 countries. He lives a life informed by his experiences of international cultures and the joy of living by the coast—from the east coast of Yorkshire to Australia, Singapore, and, now, California. Follow James on Twitter @farnelljames.

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