2017 not only marks five years of our Oakland shop (opened August 2012), but 10 years of our blog (started in February 2007). I'm not usually the sentimental type - and I've certainly never been big on scrapbooking. But you only get to celebrate your five year anniversary once, so I'm doing it!
As a small business owner, you don't really have the time or luxury to look back, reflect, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. It's always go-go-go and thinking about what's coming next. I'm proud that Umami Mart has hit the five year mark - a colossal achievement in the internet age, wouldn't you say?
It has not been easy to get this far - Yoko and I have gone through many challenges with Umami Mart and have made some hard decisions together. Had we not made the right choices at the right time, the shop might not be around today. Because running a small business is like driving a race car - it's a thrilling to be so autonomous, but one wrong turn could burn you badly. Could we have improved or made better decisions along the way? Sure. Like rearing a child, it's a trial and error process. But I don't think either of us have regretted anything about our journey thus far.
And looking back through our five years, I see one theme that runs through the spirit of our business - friendship and merriment. Having fun is the backbone of our business. We are lucky to have started Umami Mart with our friends, and that tradition holds. Most of all, Yoko and I have been friends for twenty years - we met when we were in our teens. It shocks others that we are friends and business partners, but we wouldn't have it any other way. It's much more fun this way!
And through our friendship and forming Umami Mart, we've made many connections and have created a community along the way. This scrapbook reminds me that without our community, we could not exist. So thank you to all of our friends, old and new, who have supported Umami Mart through the years. Oakland's only Japanese barware, glassware, beer and sake shop!
And now, let's take a trip down memory lane, aka an evolution of haircuts in five years of Umami Mart.
Oaktown Spice Shop in the Grand Lake neighborhood opened its doors around the same time that we did. We've been great collaborators through the years and our famously addicting, can't-live-without Umami Salt was born from our event Umami in Spice. Much love for John and Erica, who continue to bring our Oakland retail community much pride and joy.
When Rod and Kelly, friends and owners of The Perish Trust, offered us their back room to turn into an Umami Mart pop-up, we were floored. The Perish Trust is a pioneer retail shop on the now-trendy Divisadero Street, and in San Francisco beyond. Yoko and I could not turn the offer down and got building.
We opened our doors in November 2013 and what was supposed to be a two-month holiday pop-up ended up lasting all through 2014. Customers still call or come through every day and say, "I went to your shop on Divisadero!" or ask, "Are you still in The Perish Trust?" It was a wonderful partnership and we can't thank Rod and Kelly enough for the opportunity.
Visit to Yukiwa Factory in Niigata
Yukiwa makes most of our stainless steel bartools and we are proud to have built such a collaborative relationship with them. Through the years we developed the Julep strainer together, and coming soon, the two ounce jigger!!!
Visit to Toyo Sasaki Glass Factory in Chiba
The glasses we sell with Hard Strong technology has become popular in the States, and we are proud to be spreading the love. Our visit to the Toyo-Sasaki factory, where the Hard Strong glasses are manufactured, was eye-opening. They are the biggest glassware factory in Japan, and still hand-blow many of their products on-site.
Our neighbor, the beloved Belgian beer bar The Trappist, have become a frequent collaborator over the years and this event started it all. Since then, we continue to partner on Japan Beer Fest every year, in conjunction with SF Beer Week, and then again for Matsuri, our annual anniversary party. The Trappist is a pioneer in our neighborhood and we are so honored to work with them.
Chris Cabs joins Umami Mart
Where was Umami Mart before Cabs? One could only wonder. It's all a blur until Cabs joined our team in 2014. He's been with us for three years now and has become our shop manager, conbini, sake and beer buyer - and a dear friend to us and all of our regulars.
Trip to Osaka + Gifu
Yoko and I were invited to Gifu, a prefecture close to Kyoto and Osaka. It was a very important trip for us, as it was there that we found our Heritage Mugs.
We were also in the local paper...
And we went to see Tomokazu Kai at Heuga Bar...
And we witnessed the practice of ukai (cormorant fishing)...
Then we took the train to Osaka and our minds were blown. The town is the raddest, and we hope to open a sake shop like this someday.
This marked a moment in our business where we felt that we were "making it!" We were being invited by the Japanese government to import new products into the U.S. and received a cultural education along the way through exploring cities we had never visited. Kanpai!
Tori-chan of Tokyo's Jicca restaurant is a frequent collaborator with us. We visit Jicca every year in Tokyo and invited her to pop-up in Oakland in 2014, at Ordinaire. The event sold out in a matter of days, and was extremely memorable. It's in our top five favorite events for sure. Don't worry, there will be more.
Wow. How could we have known that curry made from scratch would be such a HOT topic?!?! Over the years we have taught classes at 18 Reasons in San Francisco about sake and shochu, and so when they asked us to spearhead a cooking class on how to make curry from scratch, we said yes. We had no idea how hard this would be. After weeks and weeks of R+D, Yoko and I finally nailed down the recipe and the class went really well. We wrote about our experience on the blog, along with the recipe, and it continues to be the most popular Umami Mart blog post of all time. Thank you 18 Reasons for having us, and for inspiring us to create this recipe.
Muji is a leading retailer in Japan, and so when they call to ask if you'd like to collaborate on an event, you say yes, enthusiastically. They asked us to create a couple non-alcoholic drink recipes, fit for the warm summer months, and we presented them to their customers at their San Francisco shop. It was a fun event!
We joined forces with Campari's Women & Whiskies program to present the Fragrance of Whisky event. Held inside the private clubhouse in Wingtip, it was a formidable event of whisky tasting and perfume-smelling, for ladies only. What a delightful experience!
Visit to Studio Arhoj in Copenhagen
Yoko and I were invited to Paris to visit an international trade show, and we could not have gone to Europe without stopping off to see our Big Brother Anders Arhoj of Studio Arhoj. This was my first visit to the studio and I was so excited to see where the magic happens. Our shop in Oakland is completely designed by Anders - the graphics, the furniture, and damn him, he insisted on the gleaming white floors. We listen to everything he says and remains a formidable member of the Umami Mart family.
Did you know that Yoko was a film major in college? Beyond Japanese bartools, glassware and sake, she has a passion for photography and film-making (among many other things). This was a video she made with our friends at Prizefighter, about their ice program. Expect more awesome videos and tutorials like these from Yoko!
Yoko Becomes a Certified Sake Professional
It was the busiest time of year for us - the holidays - but getting this certification was important to Yoko and for Umami Mart. We were going to start selling alcohol soon and felt that one of us should be an expert on the subject of sake. Yoko always had a penchant for the brewed beverage - having worked at an izakaya in Tokyo, and the tasting room at Takara in Berkeley. We were so happy when she received her Sake Professional certification and title and she continues to lead the Sake Gumi program today.
Visit to Fukushima City
We visited Fukushima City with Tori-chan, of Jicca, who is from the prefecture. Yoko and I had raised $10,000 for the Tohoku area when the earthquake hit in 2011, and the recovery continues to be an important cause for us. The winter was cold in Fukushima, but we warmed up in the onsen, enjoyed the regional sake and food, and met a wonderful community of artists and farmers. It was a wonderful trip, and since then, we have returned to the region. We love Tohoku!
Sake Brewery Visits in Niigata
A major part of our job is to visit sake breweries. Tough life! We are really fortunate to be able to go behind the scenes to see first-hand of how sake is made. Sake is primarily made during the cold months, so it's perfect timing since we usually go to Japan during the winter. During this particular time, we visited Kinshihai Brewery and Aoki Brewery who make two of our most popular sakes - Snow Shadow and Yuki Otoko, respectively. It is our honor to visit sake breweries, most that have been around for centuries, and showcase them on our blog.
Bottle System Activated
It took us a couple years to get our license to sell booze but we finally did it! Of course we had Anders design the shelving and we named it the Bottle System, and stocked it with every beer from Japan that we could find, along with sakes that Yoko likes, and vermouths and wines that I like. What's next for the Bottle System? Japanese whisky and shochu! Stay tuned!
Trip to Honolulu
I dream of Hawaii and think back to this trip often. We snorkeled, ate malasadas, karaoked at Wang Chung's and went on a sunset cruise. Our meal at Izakaya Gaku was memorable. Can we go back soon, Yoko????
We launched Sake Gumi in August of 2015 - a sake subscription program. Each month, members get two bottles of sake chosen by Yoko, along with tasting notes. There are about 130 members to date, from all over the west coast, but mostly in the East Bay. This was our first Sake Gumi Social - an event to get members into one room to talk about sake. The theme was genshu sakes, and we tasted a couple from different breweries, plus a cocktail created by me! We packed in about 40 people into the Ramen Shop bar and had a blast getting to know one another. We throw Sake Gumi events quarterly - a huge perk of joining the club!
Tohoku Springs Back Fundraiser
For the fifth anniversary commemorating the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, we threw a fundraiser for YPLAN, a program that brings high school students from Tohoku to Berkeley each summer. We invited Tori-chan of Tokyo's Jicca to cater the event, and DJ Marcy of Fukushima City's Little Bird record shop. We had a blast and were thankful for all the folks who came out to party with us for Tohoku.
The opening of Preserved has been a monumental addition to the retail scene in Oakland. This awesome shop is dedicated to all things fermented and preserved - from ingredients to kitchen tools to cook books. The owner Elizabeth Vechiarelli is a treasure trove of knowledge on the subject and is usually in the shop to answer anyone's questions about pickling or brewing beer. We have taught two cooking classes at Preserved on how to make and use shio koji - a miracle condiment for tenderizing and adding umami to dishes. We love working with Elizabeth!
Camino is one of our favorite restaurants in Oakland - and not just because I used to bartend there for a few years before opening Umami Mart. (I still think it has one of the best cocktails in the Bay Area). And wouldn't you know it, owners Russ and Allison love sake! They are Sake Gumi members and we drummed up the idea of a sake dinner at Camino where we pair sakes with a three course meal cooked in the fireplace. We've turned it into an annual event so make sure to come to the next one in Spring 2018!
Trip to Washington D.C.
Umami Mart for President!
Yet another Sake Gumi event! This time we held it at the ever-popular Sequoia Diner in the Laurel neighborhood in Oakland. My brother Kei created a three-course cheese-themed meal, and we paired with Hakkaisan sakes. It was a memorable event, mostly due to the small kitchen fire (sorry Andrew!) but super fun nonetheless.
Grace joins Umami Mart
Grace has been an exuberant addition to our team - she is super creative, and can tell you about all the sakes she loves on the shelves. Make sure to check out her Instagram stories on the Umami Mart feed every Friday, they are gems! She also co-wrote this Honolulu travel guide - check it out.
Our first time in Kyushu! Yoko and I visited the island with Anders, his friend TB, and my husband Johnny. I love Kyushu - its laid back vibes and lush, tropical vegetation. We visited tea farms, a sake and shochu brewery, and relaxed in onsen with views of the sea. And drank lots of shochu!
Mikey Joins Umami Mart
Mikey has become an essential member of our team - streamlining systems and operations for the back end of Umami Mart. Thanks to him, we're running more smoothly than ever. After hours he is practicing with his band Praying. Check them out!
We published Yoko's Japanify All Day Zine last November and finally threw a release party for it earlier this year. The zine is jam-packed with original recipes by Yoko, inspired by her Japanify column on our blog. As its editor, it is basically a compilation of all of my favorite recipes by Yoko. I have personally tested and tasted all of the recipes and can guarantee that they are simple to make and deeeelicious. Our release party was at the not-yet-opened Kebabery in Oakland. Russ and Allison of Camino, also owners of The Kebabery (along with Brian Crookes) were kind enough to let us come and take over the space and test out the grill before it was open to the public. We were so lucky and had a blast that night.
Women's Retail Association of Oakland
We launched a rad group called Women's Retail Association of Oakland - where women retailers of Oakland come together quarterly to discuss small business woes, trials and tribulations. In a sea of restaurants and bars, we are a small slice of small businesses in Oakland trying to make it. We encourage, support and listen to one another and give advice when needed. Also, we bring in speakers specializing in various subject areas like social media, or employment law, to further our development. It's been a lot of fun so far, meeting and talking with other women retail business owners. We love Oakland!
Trip to Shochu Distilleries in Kyushu
We were invited to tour shochu distilleries through Kyushu - what an incredible experience! we visited about eight distilleries in total, mainly in Kagoshima and Kumamoto.
Yoko and I are avid shochu drinkers - it is a versatile distilled beverage that can be enjoyed on-the-rocks, with warm water or with a mixer. We had a wonderful time learning about how shochu is made, aged and enjoyed. And Kyushu cuisine rocks! Lot of pork and seafood and noodles. I highly recommend a visit to Kyushu - it has become one of my favorite places in the world.
A Visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro
What more is there left to say? Long live Jiro.
Annual Hinamatsuri Event
We're keeping this tradition alive! Every March we display a Hinamatsuri set, made by Yoko's mama for Japan's Girl's Day. The impressive five-tier installation looks quite handsome in our shop and reminds us that spring is near. Girl's Day is a day to celebrate a woman's strength and happiness; we host an afternoon tea and invite the community and their daughters. One of my favorite events every year.
Collaboration Tea Launch with Far Leaves Tea
Far Leaves in Berkeley is a restful place to visit for a warm cup of tea and some peace of mind. Donna Lo is its founder, since the 90s, and continues to inspire us with her savvy and enthusiasm for her business. We were so happy to work closely with Donna and launch a collaborative tea with Far Leaves - one for the morning, and one for bedtime. Hopefully there will be more collabs in the future with Far Leaves!
Becoming a Shochu Advisor
Inspired by our time visiting shochu distilleries in Kyushu, I took the plunge and took a test to become a Shochu Advisor. And I passed! We'll hopefully be carrying shochus in a few months, so I will be available to answer all your questions about Japan's distilled beverage.
Celebrating Five Years of Umami Mart
Ah, five years. We still have so much to learn, but I do feel that we've hit a milestone and have come of age. Look at this photo of us above, we were babies when we first opened! Umami Mart has evolved a lot but our core products and business values remain unwavering and true to why we started the business in the first place. I'm proud of that.
We've spent the last few weeks partying - between our staff + family picnic, and Matsuri. It feels great - why shouldn't we celebrate five years of being in Oakland?! Thank you for having us around! We hope to continue serving our community for many years to come.
Top Photo by Giant Robot Media. Other photos by Kayoko Akabori, Yoko Kumano and Johnny Lopes.