Here we are, 10 years after opening our doors at 815 Broadway, August 3, 2022. How sweet are we???
It all feels like a million years ago but know that our adventures are only beginning. Ten years is certainly a milestone, and so many of you have reached out to congratulate us so I know it must be a big deal. THANK YOU to all our past writers, staff members, loyal customers, event guests, volunteers, neighboring small business owners, Oakland city officials, and Umami Mart blog readers who have kept the Umami Mart spirit alive and thriving for (actually, over) a decade. We remain indebted to you for fueling us in the beginning when opening a Japanese barware shop in Oakland seemed like a bizarro idea; then for helping keep our business afloat through these last couple of dark pandemic years.
Indulge me as I reflect on the last 10 years. And actually, let me take you back even further to 2007, when we were just a food blog at umamimart dot blogspot dot com. Here we go!
Feb 2007, Umami Mart blog is born, NYC + Tokyo
Yes, you all know by now that we were just a lil international food blog, talking about eating, drinking, restaurants, bars, home cooking, food packaging, and important issues like Barbie cakes and what lives in the deep dark crevices of our fridges. At its height, we were posting every day, by 20+ writers from all around the world, with readership far and wide. I was your humble editor, as I remain today.
And we really didn't know what we were doing with umamimart dot blogspot dot com, but I knew well enough to buy the umamimart dot com domain on Go Daddy in 2007. So you could say that our evolution as a company from tiny blog to brick and mortar was always written in the stars.
The Umami Mart Blog is 15 years old this year. WOW!
November 2010, Launch of Umami Mart online shop
Yoko and I moved back to the Bay in 2008/09 and wondered what we would do with our lives. The world was our oyster and this was a pivotal moment for Umami Mart. I was living with my parents and actively looking for a job in publishing (without any luck), so I went back to waiting tables and moved up behind the bar as a barback then promoted to bartender in dreadfully awful Santana Row in San Jose. Yoko went back to her film school roots to do video work which then led her to teleprompting. All the while, Umami Mart the blog was thriving and we wondered what to do with it next.
We would meet weekly in her apartment in Berkeley and brainstorm. Yoko started taking a night course on small business entrepreneurship at the local adult school, and then got her import/export license as Trader Yoko. I wish the URL was still live for Trader Yoko dot com, it was pretty great with a doodle of Yoko's head on the logo, if I recall correctly. Doodles were destined to be a part of the Umami Mart oeuvre.
We launched the Umami Mart Shop modestly with the Gold Cobbler Shaker, Diamond Cut Mixing Glass, totes designed by Wormfun aka Yoko's sister, and a now out-of-print Umami Mart x Anders Arhoj Travel Mug (above).
May 2012, Popup at Piper + John General Goods
Now, I'm not sure you remember but even before we opened the downtown location, we had a very short-lived pop-up inside Piper + John, around the corner on 9th Street. Looking back, it's clear how Yoko was destined to be the chief merchandiser of our shop. She is the mastermind of all our displays, from day one.
Aug 2012, Open Umami Mart downtown Oakland, 815 Broadway
Honestly, we weren't even really looking to open such a large shop, we just wanted a little showroom. What we got was 1000 square feet and six months rent-free, thanks to the revitalization project in Old Oakland called Popuphood. So we took a chance, signed some contracts and got to work. It was a barren space with black floors, yuck!!! But the 100 year old brick wall really drew us in and we called Yoko's good friend Anders Arhoj in Copenhagen, who was also a blog contributor, to help us design the space and our logo. He came up with the above design and we pretty much made it look exactly like he dictated.
Because we had so little money, we enlisted everyone we knew to help us create Umami Mart, from blog to store. It was really an intense undertaking now that I think about it. But we were 30 and didn't have anything to lose. By the end of buildout we had little money for inventory so our display was sparse but we managed to fake it till we made it.
There's really so much I can say about this space – how we built it from the ground up on $10K, activated the space, breathed life into it, and nurtured it for seven years. Really though, the first year or so was tough. Yoko and I worked the shop just us two, no employees, paying ourselves little to nothing, hustling on the side with bartending and teleprompting to keep the shop alive. But we made it a priority and the whole community continued to show up. We could not be more grateful for the support of our shop in those early years.
Yoko and I still joke about how random our business plan was – a Japanese barware shop in Oakland. And in all seriousness, it only thrived because it was in Oakland. We couldn't have opened Umami Mart anywhere else.
Nov 2012, Oorutaichi Show
To this day, one of the most epic, memorable, talked-about events at Umami Mart – and my favorite event image designed by Yoko. Oorutaichi is a musician and video artist, who had been visiting the Bay from Osaka. This event set the bar for so many epic parties and events we would throw in this space (we even hosted a wedding ceremony once!).
March 2013, First Hinamatsuri
From the start, we knew that Umami Mart HQ would be a clubhouse where we could invite all our friends and neighbors to just hang out. Many of the events we started we still do annually, like Matsuri or Hinamatsuri, the Girl's Day festival where we display the dolls that Yoko's mom spent years making herself. We look forward to breaking these out every year and sharing with everyone, young and old.
June 2013, Conbini Open
It didn't take long for us to realize that people in the neighborhood weren't all looking for Japanese barware and kitchen accessories. There were a lot of offices upstairs and around the block and people would peek in, confused about who we were, and most assumed we were a gallery or a shop selling essential oils and lotions.
So once again, we called up Anders to help us design the next element of Umami Mart – the Conbini. We had this random little nook in the back of our shop that we never quite knew what to do with and was really just an eyesore. We knew Anders, together with Joe and Devin of Manual Labor would make it into something spectacular.
We figured that our neighbors, while may not have needed a Cobbler Shaker, all would definitely need some Japanese snacks, candy, and soft drinks to get them through the day in their cubicles. This is what Conbini was all about – adding a little pizzazz to an otherwise doldrum day.
We added a back wall display too! Woooo! Devin and Joe worked really hard to get the lighting juuuuust right in this whole back wall and Conbini. It was really bright.
And of course we threw a huge party to celebrate.
Even today, people come into our shop and ask about our Conbini. It really made an impression.
Nov 2013, SF Popup Opens at The Perish Trust
Gosh, we really did a lot in 2013! Our friends Kelly and Rod, owners of the legendary Perish Trust on Divisadero, asked us to pop-up inside their back kitchen. What an honor! And yes, we made it look exactly as Anders wanted.
It was a mini Umami Mart in the middle of the city. A plywood dream!
Dec 2013, Launch of Umami Salt by Oaktown Spice Shop
Collaborating with other businesses is a big part of the Umami Mart spirit. We've gotta keep things interesting! Plus we get to meet and work with other rad business owners from all over the place. It's important to us that we stay fresh and not get so insular.
Umami Salt was the brainchild from an event we did with Oaktown Spice Shop called Umami in Spice. The salt remains one of our best sellers, all these years later, and I think for them too! Oaktown Spice Shop celebrates 11 years this year – we love you guys!
Feb 2014, First Annual Japan Beer Fest with Trappist
How lucky were we that our back door went straight into the patio of The Trappist, a beer bar that had single-handedly created Old Oakland in 2007. In conjunction with SF Beer Week, we put on Japan Beer Fest every February with The Trappist, complete with food vendors, many beers from Japan on tap, and eclectic offerings like beer slushies.
We'd love to put on a Japan Beer Fest in 2023. Stay tuned!
Oct 2014, Launch of Umami Mart x Yukiwa Julep Strainer
I think the recipe for our business and making it to year 10 is something like: 1% idea, 2% luck, and 97% persistence. We don't really take no for an answer and will ask for one request 15 different ways until the other person says ok. I mean, being able to collaborate with Yukiwa, the premier barware maker in the entire world? Going to their headquarters and factory in Niigata, getting a tour, and seeing pieces being designed? And asking the president to create new designs for us, based on American bartenders' needs (then going to karaoke with him afterwards)?? It all seems impossible, now that I think of it, foolish even. But we made it happen – together with Yukiwa, we created the Umami Mart Julep Strainer, which our customers had been asking us, no begging us, to get made.
Kayoko and Maruyama-san, President of Yukiwa.
From there, we've gone on to create jiggers with lines in ounce measurements, and mixing glasses. We're very proud of our line of barware as it's really the backbone of our company.
Apr 2015, Bottle System Opens
The next logical step in the evolution of Umami Mart would be our alcohol license. It's something that Yoko and I looked into getting from day one and took a few years to realize, thanks to silly permits and exorbitant fees.
Once again, Anders designed our shelving unit, which we lovingly called the "Bottle System" after we were inspired by a liquor shop in Niigata called "World Liquor System."
Somehow Joe and Devin of Manual Labor were able to bring Anders' drawings to life and create this awesome shelving unit in the back of our shop. If you look carefully at these shelves (yes, it's the same shelves in our new location), it's an immense feat in engineering and design as single wood beams shoot from bottom to the top. It is a thing of beauty.
Yoko, Anders, and Kayoko peeking out of the short-lived greenhouse shrine.
By this time, Anders was had opened his new ceramics shop Studio Arhoj in Copenhagen which was flourishing. We were so lucky to have him design for Umami Mart.
Aug 2015, Launch of Sake Gumi
We didn't wait very long after building the Bottle System to come up with our monthly sake club, Sake Gumi. I still remember the brainstorming session in the car with Yoko, on the way to SF, about how to attract younger sake drinkers. It had to be priced accordingly, so we decided to make Level 1 $29!!! OMG we were so cute.
Anders of course designed our chic Sake Gumi logo.
Sake Gumi is one of our offerings that I'm most proud of for the shop. It has such an engaged community of over 200 members across the U.S., and Yoko really works her ass off to bring the best sake from Japan over for the program. PLUS she writes tasting notes monthly and as Sake Director, is our sake brain for the shop. Sake is now our most popular category at Umami Mart and it's really thanks to the enthusiasm and knowledge that Yoko and our staff has brought to the beverage.
Jiro would join, if we shipped internationally.
Apr 2016, First Camino Sake Dinner
Sake Dinners at Camino were the best. We did three of them before they closed their doors in 2018. I bartended at Camino for several years before and while we started Umami Mart so it holds a special place in my heart. We still keep in touch with members of the Camino family, many who went off to spawn their own businesses in the East Bay.
The Sake Dinners were a ticketed event where Russ' dishes would be coursed alongside sake pairings. It was a way for us to evangelize sake, and introduce to folks that you can drink sake with any food, not just sushi. Allison and Russ are both big sake fans so it was always a lot of fun to R+D sakes with different dishes cooked in Camino's famous fireplace.
The dinners would sell out every year and the guests were always really into it. Many people joined Sake Gumi from this event and are still members today.
The closing of Camino was devastating for the East Bay but we are lucky to have The Kebabery now in Berkeley! We hope to host sake dinners there soon so stay tuned!
June 2016, First Sakqueso! at Sequoia Diner
Our much beloved Sakqueso! theme for Sake Gumi centers on pairing cheese with sakes. It's genius and the event is always a frenzy – which all started at Sequoia Diner in Oakland, where Keisuke, my brother aka Casa de Kei, created cheese-centric dishes alongside the sakes for the month.
The event was hosted with Timothy Sullivan, a long time friend of Umami Mart and Hakkaisan Sake Ambassador. He was in town from NYC so we asked him to pair the cheese dishes with Hakkaisan sakes. Wow what a treat!
The epic 5-course menu:
First Course: Nectarine Salad
Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese dressing, toasted almonds, mizuna, radish
w. Cocktail of Hakkaisan Honjozo, yuzu, honey
Second Course: Roasted Baby Potatoes
Panko-fried Le Chatelain Camembert, togarashi aioli, tarragon
w. Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake
Third Course: Grilled Tsukune
Grated Don Francisco Cotija, chives, lemon, fried quail egg
w. Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake
Fourth Course: Chile Rellenos
Melted El Mexicano Oaxaca, spicy pork ka prow, pico de gallo
w. Hakkaisan Shiboritate Nama Genshu Sake
Fifth Course: Poached Bing Cherries
Cypress Grove Herb Fromage Blanc, marjoram, port wine reduction, Yoko's honey, aged balsamico
w. Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo Sake
We can't take credit for naming Sakqueso! – the catchiest name ever. Keisuke came up with it during an early brainstorming session and as the big sister, I probably poo-pooed the idea. But I always knew that it's quite clever.
Nov 2016, Japanify Published
Japanify was a blog column that Yoko started when she moved back to Berkeley from Japan, centering on easy Japanese dishes with ingredients found in the local markets. It had quite the following and today has the most widely read blog posts on our site. We decided to publish a zine that would include an array of recipes found on the blog, and some new ones too – dividing it into menu ideas for morning, noon, and evening. Yoko not only created the recipes, she photographed the dishes, designed the layout, and drew all the doodles. She is so talented, isn't she??!?!?
I love this zine, which has already had its second printing, it is so popular. My copy is tattered and I keep it handy on my kitchen counter. I use it all the time, especially for the sauces like for steak or hiyashichuka, which is on rotation weekly at my house as it's a family favorite during the summer. Which begs the question: is it ok to make the same dish once a week?
Yoko continues to write Japanify posts all the time, I know y'all really look forward to it!
Mar 2017, Shochu Distillery Tour in Kyushu
This trip was a real game changer for me, in my career and for the evolution of the shop. I grew up going to Tokyo and Yokohama, and so knew very little about Kyushu. Yoko and I were invited to tour shochu distilleries all around the island and WOW. What an incredible place! It's so vibrant and diverse!
During this intense trip visiting many distilleries throughout Kyushu (it's actually quite a big island so we did quite a bit of zig-zagging), we met and talked with brewery owners, toji, and farmers. It was such an eye-opening experience and it was here that I really started to understand the deep history and connection between the local agriculture and its resulting drink.
Black koji mash
The terroir of Kyushu is stunning – at any point of exploring the different towns and cities, you could feel like you're in the Scottish Highlands or the Big Island or the Pacific Northwest. I can't wait to explore more of the south – Okinawa next!
May 2017, Launch of Female Frontrunners
Miho Imada of Imada Shuzo with Yoko
This is a theme that has increasingly become important to us year after year, and we now feature it during the month of March alongside International Women's Day and Hinamatsuri. More than ever, I feel we need to feature and support women makers and artists who are pushing boundaries and meticulously producing their craft. Many women left the workforce during the pandemic and the reversal of the Roe vs. Wade decision here in the U.S. continues to remind us how little autonomy we have. It's so monumentally fucked up! With Female Frontrunners, we get to celebrate the spirit and contribution of women in our industry who stand strong and won't be defeated.
Nanami Watanabe of Niizawa Shuzo
June 2017, Launch of Umami Mart x Far Leaves Teas
Speaking of women fiercely leading the industry, Donna Lo (above), founder of Far Leaves Tea, is a great mentor to us. As a pioneer tea importer based in Berkeley, her shop is a tranquilizing respite from frantic East Bay life. We were honored to work with her on an exclusive blend of teas for morning and night, Ohayo and Oyasumi which we continue to have on our shelves today.
Mar 2018, Spirits Launched at UM
So immediately after we started selling sake and Japanese beers, people from all over the place, several times a week, would come in or call or email us and ask, "Do you have Japanese whisky?" "Do you have Yamazaki?" It was really, really annoying to keep saying no, so we started going through the arduous steps of getting our spirits license. It was a whole ordeal, much more so than just getting our license for sake and beer, but we shelled out the cash and went for it.
Oct 2018, Chicago Popup @ Ace Hotel
I was a few months pregnant when we packed up the shop, and our entire staff, to pop-up inside Ace Hotel in Chicago. It was a rad time where we met a lot of our Chicago customers, who continue to support us today.
We ate hotdogs at Portillo's and sipped over-the-top cocktails at Alinea and had a grand time in this great city. I also ate raw oysters on this trip, defying the odds of what you are and are not allowed to eat while pregz. I barfed it all up. Anyway, we absolutely adored Chicago and would definitely do this again!
May 2019, Move to new location with bar
This was a big deal for us. After seven years downtown, we got an opportunity to move to a new location where the landlord would build out a bar for us. It was a really hard decision – we had built a community with our neighbors in Old Oakland and we really loved being down there. Plus we went to Chinatown for lunch everyday!
But we really wanted a bar! That would complete the Umami Mart experience! It would be an intimate bar to sip on sakes, shochu, and cocktails! So off we headed 40 blocks north to 4027 Broadway. Still in Oakland though!
Once again, we asked Anders to design the space and Manual Labor to support the buildout. We would use a lot of the same furniture from the old space, thankfully, but we needed a super sleek bar. Devin and Joe made it happen.
The move was challenging. I had just given birth two months beforehand so needless to say, it was awful timing and Yoko was left to single-handedly manage the move. I still owe her bigtime!!!
Aug 2019, LA Popup @ Ace Hotel
We kept in touch with the folks from Ace Hotel and we were invited to popup at the LA location. After such a big move it was great to get out of Oakland and see our friends down south. Everyone was welcoming and we had a blast with several events spanning the weekend!
Nov 2019, Launch of Sake + Shochu Talk Zine
I'm not really sure how we accomplished so much in 2019 but we even managed to publish our second zine! This was a collab effort between Yoko and me, where she wrote about sake and I wrote about shochu. Sake + Shochu Talk is a really fun zine, written in a FAQ style about each beverage with more doodles by Yoko. Anyone who is interested in learning about sake or shochu needs to read this.
Dec 2019, Launch of Shochu Gumi
I had wanted to start a shochu club for a while but didn't think there would be much interest. I had gotten my Shochu Advisor certification in 2018, and finally bit the bullet and debuted Shochu Gumi a year later. Similarly to Sake Gumi, you get two bottles under one theme, with tasting notes and special member discounts and events. Members get their bottles quarterly, which is appropriate since shochu is a spirit. We now have 80 members nationwide! Shochu is still such a niche beverage but I think the potential is huge for it to blow up in like 5-10 years in the U.S. – it is such a special drink! Our vast offerings of shochu and this club keeps us ahead of the trends, which is a key factor in the success of our business.
Mar 2020, Pandemic Starts (shutdown, online only, hell)
This photo sums it up – get it shipped, choose local pickup, don't come into the shop. Oy, the misery of the pandemic. Yoko and I were were like ships passing in the night as we struggled to keep Umami Mart going, just the two of us. We put everything up on our online shop and it flourished, thanks to you all, and to keep things interesting, we hosted Zoom events. We finally feel like we've made it to the other side, but boy, that was a doozy.
One thing's for sure – we are a brick and mortar retail store, not just an online shop!!! The pandemic made it clear that real person interactions are so important to our company ethos and more importantly, our sanity. I think you will agree that walking into a store and getting attentive, knowledgable service is way more meaningful than an online transaction. We are grateful that we were able to get through the pandemic with the online shop but we will never want it to be our only source for business or for interacting with our customers.
Apr 2021, Reopen Shop! New Floors!
We took the opportunity of being closed to do something that was much needed: redo our floors. It had been newly installed and painted for us in 2019 when we first moved in, but for whatever reason, the white paint had started bubbling up and cracking almost immediately. Sorry to bore you all with this mundane highlight, but Yoko and I take pride in our shop's sparkling appearances and we just could not accept our peeling floors any longer.
So it felt like a huge accomplishment to make it through that first year of the pandemic and open our doors with a brand new floor. It's gorgeous and we take good care of it! And yes, our customers definitely noticed.
June 2021, Launch of Kuma Honey Soap
Many of you know that Yoko is a beekeeper. She has hives at her home, my home, and at Devin's. When the yield is good, she sells her rich, delectable honey at the shop – since it's so hyper local, our customers love it to cure allergies. The girls are always working hard at my house in El Cerrito, sometimes make it through the winter, sometimes not. But Yoko's been at it for years now, so she's seasoned and is always game to catch the nearest swarm.
The Kuma Honey Soap, made by the amazing Asako Hostetter of Heavenly Soap Co., incorporates honey from Yoko's hive. It's the best – I use it on my face to keep me glowing!
Sept 2021, Launch of Umami Mart Junmai
Yoko and I always dreamed of launching our own sake and finally after many years, it became a reality. Together with Kita Shuzo of Shiga prefecture, we launched the Umami Mart Junmai Sake. It is a clean yet robust sake with a satisfyingly dry ending, that is so so food friendly. We're incredibly proud of this bottle and hope to launch more drinks in the future!
To celebrate this great occasion, we went to LA to launch this with Yojimbo, a new eatery where Keisuke was working. That was a blast.
Oct 2021, Reopen Bar with Cocktails + Kissaten
Besides the new floors, we did one more thing during the pandemic: we got our spirits license for the bar, so we could make cocktails and serve whisky. I guess you can say we now have every piece of the puzzle to complete the Umami Mart experience, and we are so happy about that. But we're learning that the bar is a whole other beast from running a retail shop, and so we are humbled every day with its challenges.
As people are getting more comfortable around one another, our bar is slowly coming back to life. We reopened last fall and our manager Ian took the reins for a special Kissaten series which was wildly popular. Even so, we are on a steep learning curve of how to run a bar and it's even harder to make it successful. We have many events planned for the bar through the fall – please come out and join us!
Besides focusing on the bar, we made it our mission in 2022, our tenth year in business, to also prioritize our staff. We are such a tight knit family and Yoko and I want to make sure our employees are taken care of, especially in this crazy economy of the Bay. We are proud to offer competitive wages, medical benefits, paid time off, trips to Japan, and retirement. We always strive to be better bosses and hope that people like working with us.
2022 has also been the Year of Collaboration – we rounded up are BFFs from the Bay and beyond to showcase the spirit of Umami Mart. Here's everything we've launched in the last year:
Studio Arhoj x UM Cups
Kabamaru x UM Furoshiki
Umami Mart Bitters by Miracle Mile
Extreme Junmai 90 UM x Den Sake Brewery
+ Extreme Junmai Soap by Heavenly Soap Co.
10 Year Logo by Mike Cerwonka
We're so lucky to have a community of fellow business owners who want to do fun things together. Let's keep going!
Well, that's it. I did a recap after our first year, and our fifth year, and doing this 10 year recap really took me forever to write. We sure did pack in a lot of stuff!!! It's important to take a moment to reflect on our achievements, and how far we've come. But it's even more thrilling to think about what we will do in the upcoming years – we have no idea what is in store for us! Life is a bag of tricks that way.
Yoko and I are grateful to Umami Mart, our staff, customers, and our community, for giving us a space to express ourselves all of these years. Very special thanks to our partners, siblings, close friends, and family who have supported us every step of the way. We love you all.
Looking forward to the 20 year recap! See y'all around until then!