It's a plain little oven, but what comes out is both mundane and magical: perfectly toasted bread.
Balmuda, a small appliance maker based in Tokyo's suburbs, has taken an ordinary kitchen appliance—the toaster—and turned it into a high-tech gadget. 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.
The toaster costs 24,000 yen ($230), or almost five times the price of a regular device in Japan (the smaller appliances with doors and trays are the norm here, rather than the pop-up variety). With at least a three-month wait in stores, the gadget has become a quiet hit, even though the manufacturer hasn't bought ads or aired any commercials since it debuted in June—an unusual glimmer of innovation in a country that once wooed consumers with Walkmans, digital cameras and flat-panel TVs.
It was at a company picnic on a rainy day, warming bread on a grill, that company founder Gen Terao and his band of product designers accidentally made great toast. After the showers stopped, they tried to reproduce it in a parking lot and realized that water was the key. Thousands of slices later, they figured out that 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.
"The best results are with croissants," said Mark Oda, who works on web and media content in Tokyo and was among the first to buy Balmuda's toaster. "I can never go back to 5,000-yen toasters."
The idea of reinventing the toaster came from an equally unlikely source: Terao, a high-school dropout who spent his college funds (a life-insurance payout after his mother died) trekking across Spain, Morocco and the Mediterranean. He 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.
"I was reading Forbes when I was in the band," the 42 year-old said. "And like music, I wanted to create something that I liked, and find out if people liked that too."
After persuading a small local factory to let him use their milling machines, Terao took a block of aluminum and carved out five laptop stands. He sold those, then another 100, and started hiring. Balmuda (a neologism, like Sony) was born, and it moved on to build desk lights, electric fans, humidifiers and other home products. It was in 2014 when Terao turned his attention to food—because "eating is a moving experience"—that he decided to make toasters.
"Consumers are embracing gadgets that do one thing well," said Hiromi Yamaguchi, an analyst at Euromonitor in Tokyo. "Larger appliance makers are selling products with too many functions, and not a lot of people use them."
Sales took off late last year, and despite Terao's goal of shipping 10,000 units a month, there haven't been enough to keep stores stocked. While Balmuda recently expanded sales to South Korea, the company isn't planning to market the toaster in the U.S. or Europe.