By Chang-Ran Kim
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's long-toiling office workers have an incentive to stay chained to their desks: shrimp-flavored crackers, cafe-au-lait taffies, spicy potato chips and M&M candy.
Confectionery maker Ezaki Glico has taken convenience to a new level for corporate employees too busy to pop out of the office with kiosks-in-a-box filled with munchies.
The three-drawer box - roughly the size of a countertop file cabinet - contains 24 items when fully stocked. Company workers simply deposit 100 yen ($1) in a frog-shaped piggy bank, open a drawer and take the snack of their choice.
On the face of it, relying on trust may seem a risk, but Japanese are well known for their honesty. The business is also profitable and at least one major retailer has followed suit.
Goods are replenished or replaced weekly by an army of 500 part-time workers. The contents on offer change every three weeks, adding an element of surprise that vending machines do not provide, said Keisuke Furuyabu, who heads the business, called Office Glico.
"There's an air of mystery and fun," he said.
When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan in March 2011 and paralyzed the capital's public transportation system, stranded office workers subsisted on Glico snacks.
Notes of gratitude gave the company the idea of marketing Office Glico as a useful addition to disaster relief, said Furuyabu.
"We cleared out the boxes that day, since hundreds of us spent the night at the office," said Nobuhiro Nagasato, an IT worker.
Nagasato routinely nibbles on Office Glico snacks, even though a convenience store is just around the corner. "I can't be bothered to leave the building," he said.
Japanese corporate culture is legendary for long working hours. A Japanese worker puts in an average 1,735 hours a year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), far more than most European nations.
Office Glico, which also offers a fridge-and-freezer version carrying drinks and ice-cream, now serves 1.8 million people in 100,000 locations, twice the number of Japan's ubiquitous convenience stores.
Last year, it racked up $44 million in sales and turned a profit for the first time since it started 12 years ago.
To drive growth, it plans to add breakfast items and midnight meals. It sees potential growth in nursing homes to take advantage of Japan's fast-ageing population, where seniors outnumber children by about two to one. It expects sales to grow another 30 percent in three years.
The company has seen some surprising patterns in demand, Furuyabu said.
Grown men were snapping up baby crackers while bosses were using the snacks as a token treat to thank hard-working staff.
Ezaki Glico, best known for its stick-shaped Pocky snacks, called Mikado in Europe, says inspiration came from unmanned road-side vegetable vendors common in rural Japan.
Convenience chain major FamilyMart started a copycat service, "Office Famima," last year.
Furuyabu says he now gets requests all the time from food makers to be included in Office Glico refreshment boxes. Kameda Seika, a top maker of rice crackers, makes small packages designed exclusively for the box, complete with an Office Glico label.
Could the honor-system work outside Japan, a country where lost wallets regularly end up back with their owners?
"Collection might be an issue," Furuyabu said, acknowledging that Office Glico's 95 percent recovery rate could be tough to replicate beyond Japan's shores.
(Editing by Ayla Yackley and Neil Fullick)