His Veggies May Be Vinyl, but They're Earning Harry Fujita Plenty of the Real Leafy Green
Simply send for Harry Fujita, 47, the founder of Iwasaki Images of America and the Picasso of fake foods. Fujita's Torrance, Calif. factory can turn out munchable-looking wax-and-vinyl copies of virtually anything, from 10-course meals to butterscotch ice cream cones complete with polyvinyl chloride driplets. And the creations—whether the lifelike salad dregs reportedly used by Tupperware salespeople to demonstrate capacity or the undrinkably dry martinis (with olive) fancied by nondrinking partygoers—are guaranteed for five years if kept out of sunlight.
Japanese restaurants have long displayed such replica food in their windows, but now American eateries are adopting the gimmick as well. For example, last year the Sizzler Restaurant chain invested some $18,000 in fake desserts for its display cases. "The only trouble we've had," laments Rick Bricker, manager of Sizzler's menu development, "is customers insisting we serve them one of the fake desserts because they look fresher than the real ones." This year Pizza Hut will use Fujita's services in creating sample salad bar displays full of chopped and shredded vinyl veggies at an estimated cost of $2 million.
Such success has brought Fujita a world away from his impoverished childhood in postwar Japan. One of eight children whose lawyer-father died of an undiagnosed disease at 42, Fujita can still remember the days when "mother would call us in to dinner, and there would be one sweet potato or one ear of corn." Orphaned at 13, he was cared for by Seventh Day Adventist missionaries and eventually came to America. After 11 years as an airlines passenger service agent, Fujita finally resolved to "find a way of making the most of what this country has to offer." He wheedled $30,000 in seed money from Iwasaki Company, Ltd. of Japan and in 1975 set about starting an American branch of its replica food business.
Now, with the help of son Franklin, 22, and 42 employees, he annually sells $1.5 million worth of TV props, party favors, cookielike key chains, drumstick kitchen magnets, chocolate bonbon erasers (they smell like candy when rubbed) and other novelty items. His latest concoction is a line of mini-safes disguised as lettuce heads and mayo jars, for hiding cold cash and jewelry in the family fridge. Introduced last year, Fujita has sold more than 12,000 of them at $12 to $15 each.
The secret to Fujita's success, especially with custom-made orders, rests with the Japanese-trained artisans who carefully color the fake cake slices, salamis and other goodies in oil paint. "Our icers frost these cakes with as much finesse as any pastry chef," says Franklin, boasting of the ersatz eats' realistic look. "A banana without bruises is a bad banana. Without those flaws and imperfections, our food would look like that corny plastic fruit put in fruit bowls in the '60s."
As the eldest of Fujita's three children, Franklin admits to having been "brought up with very traditional Japanese values, so I'll probably follow my father's wishes to take over the company someday." In every other way, however, père Fujita seems as American as mock apple pie. "There is all this talk about Japan being superior, but I know both countries," says Franklin's father. "And there's no place like America for making a dream come true."