Umami Mart. Oakland, California. The Japanese Bar Ware Superstore.
In regards to moving-on-up and blazing new career paths, this year has been a good year for some friends of ours. Our friends, Benjamin Luddy and Makoto Mizutani, of the Scout Regalia collective first started as architects. But their love for entertaining guests and cooking at home took the shape of beautiful outdoor furniture. From there, they’ve picked up many clients and are re-designing hotels, outfitting retail stores and even HUGE corporate offices. There’s also Elaine Phuong, Victor Phuong and Khanh Phan, a brother-sister-mother team who run the super successful Nong La Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant that undoubtedly serves some of the tastiest, home-style Vietnamese food on the Westside. Both Victor and Elaine gave up their careers in order to make their mother’s dream of opening a restaurant come true. There’s also, Max Wanger and Margaux Elliott, a Los Angeles-based husband-wife photography team known for their amazing, wedding photography with a touch of fine-art. Congrats to them for making it on to the commercial level and shooting ads! And last but not least, I’m very excited to tell you about our friends Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano of the popular national blog, Umami Mart. As we’ve heard so many times before, good things this day in age start from a digital seedling known as a blog for many cooks, photographers and writers. The story of Umami Mart’s transformation into a brick-and-mortar is exciting and no different.
Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano first met in high school in Northern California. After high school, both went their separate ways, but in 2007, they decided they would stay connected by running their food blog, Umami Mart, from different parts of the world. At that time, Kayoko was in New York working in museums and Yoko was working in advertising in Tokyo. A few years later, with the blog picking up solid readership, they decided to take their blog to another level by selling Japanese goodies. Most girls, especially of Asian descent, grew up on Sanrio and developed an addiction to this Japanese brand, including my wife Jeni. Most have a serious case of Sanrio-itis. Sanrio-itis is the urge and desire to open up a tiny shop of trinkets, gadgets, stationery – amongst other random things. You also have the desire to wear neatly-ironed aprons and enjoy spending a lot of time meticulously wrapping each and every object purchased by a customer. To many people, they may not understand this sort of obsession. But if you’ve been to Japan, you know that this sort of shop exists and now you can sleep at night knowing that there is in fact a store carrying over 55,271 stickers whenever you need. But Kayoko’s and Yoko’s Sanrio-itis encompassed something most people love: food and cocktails!
In 2010, Yoko got her importing/exporting license and they wondered how they could sustain Umami Mart without making it into some ad-driven media machine. Rather than open up a kitchen store, they decided to fill a heavy void in America’s cocktail scene by selling high-quality, beautifully crafted Japanese bar ware. They took in reader suggestions as to what might be popular and started out by selling the beautiful Yarai mixing glass.
So… what… you ask. You’re probably asking what the Japanese know about making cocktails… more than you would ever think! When the Japanese like something, they approach it with 150% full dedication and detail. They obsess over it, they make love to it, they think about it every minute of the day, and even when they’re dreaming. Look at the Jiro sushi guy or former hot-dog-eating champion for example!
When I was at the famed Bar High-Five in Tokyo, I asked bartender/owner Hidetsugu Ueno for an Old Fashioned. I had no idea it would turn out to be an ancient ritual I was asking him to perform. I watched for nearly 15-20 minutes as he carved a beautiful diamond out of a block of ice for my Japanese-style Old Fashioned. I watched as he meticulously measured each of his pours into his jigger, to the point it where the liquid would form a dome just before it overflowed. Finally, I watched how he spent another few minutes counting his stirs, all while wearing a stone-face and red suspenders. He then garnished it carefully with a few squeezes of an orange peel, dropped it in and slowly slid the drink to me with a confident smile. And… it was in fact a delicious, Old-Fashioned. But while he was doing all this, I couldn’t help but notice all of his beautiful bar ware. Everything was gorgeous. The glassware, the stirring/mixing glass, the stirring spoons, bitters bottles and crystal-clear ice. All of this combined with the tiny 10-seater space made this an amazing cocktail experience.
This beautifully shot video by Bacardi is a perfect example of the Japanese approach to making cocktails.
For me, reliving that experience at home meant that I had to find the same bar ware. It’s like cooking in a kitchen, you cook better when you have solid equipment. And this is why we thank god that Umami Mart is here. The brick-and-mortar opened just last month after securing the place back in June. Kayoko and Yoko initially were doing pop-ups in various parts of the San Francisco bay area. They started looking for an actual brick-and-mortar space back out of sheer necessity. The inventory for the online shop was eating up Yoko’s apartment and it was time to rent a space — whether it be a warehouse, or actual retail space. Looking for a space on their own proved to be supremely daunting as they didn’t know how to look for brokers, spaces and lawyers. After hearing about the success of their pop-ups, they were miraculously contacted by the Popuphood program in late April which offered 6 months rent-free for a space on the main drag of Downtown Oakland to improve city commerce! They could not refuse this opportunity served on a silver platter!
Walking in, Jeni and I couldn’t help but feel excited for both Kayoko and Yoko. The store is beautifully designed/branded by their friend Anders Arhøj, an extremely talented art director from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has successfully merged Scandinavian design and Japanese retail aesthetics. I felt like I was in a MUJI store! If you do visit the store, take note that everything was constructed in 3 weeks – amazing. Just have a look at Umami Mart…
In addition to being the #1 supplier of Japanese bar ware, Kayoko and Yoko dream of selling Japanese beer, sake and shochu and would love to have a demo kitchen to host events, sell Japanese kitchen tools and how-tos for Japanese cooking. Based on what we have all just seen, I don’t think it will take very long for Kayoko and Yoko to achieve all of that. This store truly kicks ass and I’m happy to be the new owner of some really awesome strainers and jiggers. We wish them good luck! Thanks for reading and please visit!
If you’re a store-owner interested in Umami Mart’s products, they do offer distribution.
Umami Mart ウマミマート
815 Broadway (b/t 9th St & 8th St)
Oakland, CA 94607