The $6-Per Strawberries You’ll Want to Share with Someone Special
Oishii’s luxury strawberries are poised to change the way we eat fruit.
“Wait, that’s what a strawberry tastes like?” is not an uncommon reaction to trying Omakase berries from Oishii, a Kearny, New Jersey-based greentech company founded by CEO Hiroki Koga. Creamy, soft and practically candy-like, these strawberries are the Platonic ideal of fruit. Before you even have a chance to bite into one, they fill your kitchen with a sweet, appetizing aroma. Exactly how much they cost? A pack of eight large strawberries will set you back $50, while six medium berries costs $29. Three medium-sized ones can be purchased for a modest $15.
These high-end strawberries are nothing like the green basket-packed fruit we’ve been eating since childhood — and they aren’t meant to be. Upon moving to California to get his MBA at UC Berkeley in 2015, Koga, a Tokyo native who worked as a consultant at the top vertical farming institutes in Japan, was excited to sample fruits and vegetables from the world’s agricultural giant.
“I went to the supermarket and tried a bunch of different types of produce,” says Koga. “They looked really nice — they were big and shiny. But a lot of the crops lacked flavor and sweetness. The one I was most surprised by was strawberries.”
After doing some research, Koga learned that in America, strawberries, a particularly delicate fruit, are specifically bred for long distance transportation and mass production. “That means those cultivars are much harder and grow faster, so they might be hollow inside. The strawberries don't take as much time as they should take to become a fully reddened berry. Because Japan is a small country, we almost always optimize for flavor and taste.”
Japan also has a cultural tradition of celebrating with and giving high-quality fruits like strawberries, melons and grapes as gifts. “People buy them when there’s a graduation or wedding or another ceremony. As a child, I grew up knowing that whenever I saw strawberries on the living room table it was a moment of celebration. It’s really an experience — you’re not just munching through them while watching TV.” In Japan, Bijin-hime strawberries can sell for as much as $4,395 each.
Realizing a gap in the American market, Koga went back to Japan where he carefully selected the sweetest and most aromatic strawberry he could find. (No easy task considering there are over 500 strawberry varieties, of which Japan owns more than half). “I wanted to share the best of what Japan has with the rest of the world,” he says. Then, using his vertical farming knowledge, Koga set about the grueling process of setting up his facilities and training harvesters who cut the berries by hand one at a time. Before any berries are picked, their sugar content is measured using a special tool called a brix gun (brix are used to measure sugar levels. Picking the strawberries even a couple days early can mean losing 20-30 percent of their sweetness. While the type American strawberries contain 5-6 brix, Omakase berries range from 11-20 brix.
Oishii started out doing business with top-ranked New York City restaurants like Sushi Yasuda, Dominique Ansel Bakery and three-Michelin-starred Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in 2018, where chef Cesar Ramirez served one lone strawberry, untouched, at the end of an elaborate tasting menu. Today, consumers based in New York City, New Jersey and Los Angeles can place an order for the berries directly on Oishii’s website or pick them up at a specialty grocery store.
For some, the price of $4-6 a strawberry might be hard to swallow. Those who purchase Oishii’s strawberries, Koga says, aren’t dissimilar from the typical Japanese customer. They eat the berries plain and buy them to enjoy with family, friends or a special gathering. Many like to film people’s reactions when biting into the strawberry for the first time. “People have fun sharing the experience,” he says.
The catch, of course, is that after trying an Omakase Berry, it’s difficult to picture settling for less flavorful strawberries again. Imagine, after the invention of Technicolor, deciding to go back to black and white television. Koga doesn’t think American consumers should have to settle either — that’s why he’s currently working hard to make Oishii more affordable and widely available across the country. In the near future, he plans to scale production, automate processes and implement other cost reduction methods behind the scenes so that more people can experience Oishii.
However, that doesn’t mean the premium product people have fallen in love with is going away. While no firm plans have been announced, Koga says we can expect to see high-end berries alongside more accessible varieties and price points. “Our end game is not to reduce the price by 10-20%, but to be in supermarkets where people go every day,” he explains. (In the meantime, those outside the NYC, NJ and LA areas can enjoy a taste of Oishii through the Brightland + Oishii LUSH strawberry vinegar collaboration, a great addition to spritzes, salads, chocolate desserts, soft-ripened cheese and more).
Another upcoming goal is to expand into different kinds of crops, which is possible thanks to Oishii’s breakthrough in pollination technology. While not much can be said, Koga is willing to share that, “It’s really a matter of having the bees believe they are in a natural environment.”
“One reason I decided to go with strawberries first is because they’re said to be one of the hardest crops to grow in a vertical farm,” says Koga. “You need to grow flowers and make sure they get pollinated by bees, but bees were known not to operate in vertical farms. So it was really this technology aspect that motivated us to tackle the hardest problem in the industry. Now, we have a really bright future ahead of us to accelerate into other crops as well.”
First up: tomatoes and melons. “We already have some in our pipeline. Our tomatoes are as sweet as our strawberries. I'm sure you can't even imagine what that kind of tomato tastes like, but it's truly mind blowing.”