How It Started: Umami Mart - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

At what point does a pastime become a profession? Around 15 years ago, Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano were both working office jobs (Akabori in New York City, Kumano in Tokyo) and focusing their free-time energies at building a community food blog dubbed Umami Mart. 

Step by step over the years, what started as a food blogging hobby evolved into an online shop selling Japanese barware, then a brick and mortar location. Today, Umami Mart’s store and bar in Oakland, California, is the foremost destination for curious drinkers seeking to learn more about (and taste and celebrate) Japanese beverages of all types. What started as a barware store morphed over the years to include a range of Japanese kitchen goods and teaware, along with a bottle shop stocked with a magnificent range of Japanese beer, sake, shochu, and other spirits.

We spoke with Umami Mart’s founders for our May/June 2024 feature on shochu, and for our online shochu Taste Test. Here’s their more detailed story of how Umami Mart came to be, and how it’s evolved over the years.

Kayoko Akabori:

In 2007, I started Umami Mart as a blog on Blogspot. It started out as a community food blog, and I was corresponding from New York City and Yoko was in Tokyo. We both had cubicle jobs (but not really the boring kind), and we somehow found the time to write about what we were eating and cooking, and about going out and living it up in these cities. I got coworkers to start writing on the blog. And then it turned into friends internationally—our friend Anders Arhoj from Copenhagen, Brian from São Paulo, friends in LA. I think at its largest, we had maybe 30 or 40 writers contributing to the blog, and it was when blogs were just coming up, so it was a really fun time to be part of the community. 

By 2010, the blog was getting good readership, and we had a cocktail writer who was quite popular, Payman Bahmani. He was working at PDT in New York City. Yoko and I had just moved back to the Bay Area, and we were like, “Let’s try to make this even bigger, but still try to keep it ad free.” And then Payman said, “Japanese barware is really popular right now with the bartending community.” So Yoko got her importing license and we started selling Japanese barware on the blog. By the second year holiday season, it was getting big enough where we felt like it had outgrown Yoko’s apartment and we could move into a brick and mortar space, with maybe a little showroom in the front, and we would process the online orders in the back. 

One of our customers suggested a friend of theirs running this pop-up hood in downtown Oakland. It was a block of empty storefronts that the city, in conjunction with the landlord, was supporting. We got it rent-free for six months and then we could sign a lease if we wanted to stay. So it was a perfect opportunity to try it out. We had this beautiful space that was really, really big, way bigger than we had anticipated. We had to fill it out with kitchenware and other cooking-related things. 

Yoko Kumano:

When we opened the brick and mortar, we asked our friend Anders Arhoj from Copenhagen to help us design the store. He was also writing for the blog. He’s a designer and he designed our brand, our logo, and lots of the graphics that are associated with the space. He also designed the space in general, with blonde wood and a minimalistic feel. A lot of people come into the store and say, “What is this? Is this a museum or a gallery?” We sell these products. But we also created a space that we wanted to be aesthetically special, that’s clean and enjoyable to spend time in. 

Because we were in downtown Oakland and there were a lot of office workers, we realized that most people were not shopping for high-end Japanese barware or high-end teaware. So we added a little section for snacks and drinks, and these were non-alcoholic drinks when we started. And that proved to be very popular. From there, we also included things like condiments and smaller food products, but all Japan related. 

A lot of things were going on in the community around 2012. A friend of ours was starting off doing a catering business, and we became the pickup point for his bento boxes. The Ramen Shop was also just opening in Oakland around that time, so we did a lot of collaborative events. And we’ve always gained inspiration from other small business owners and local artists. Ninety percent of our products are from Japan. The other 10 percent are made in collaboration with local makers, even people in Portland and Los Angeles. These collaborations, and having events, are big parts of Umami Mart and tying into the community.

Kayoko Akabori:

Even back during the blog phase, we did lots of events. I’d organize these things called Umami Ventures. They were field trips to the outer boroughs of New York City, like a taco crawl in Sunset Park or a dim sum extravaganza in Chinatown. And Yoko would do them in Tokyo. Events were a way for us to meet the readers and connect with them in a fun way. And a big reason why we wanted a brick and mortar was to have an event space. Historically, we’ve thrown really good, really big parties. We always just lean into the community, and it’s always surprising how the community definitely shows up.

Yoko Kumano:

When you’re selling barware, truly the next question was always, “Where’s the booze?” And back then, Japanese whisky was really exploding onto the scene. We got our beer and wine license for off sale around 2014. I had some sake knowledge prior to Umami Mart, so we decided to carry sake and Japanese beer. It was a good way for us to gauge what the next questions were going to be regarding spirits. And it became clear that people wanted Japanese whisky and, eventually, shochu. Around 2017, we got our spirits license. Then in 2019, we moved to the new location because we wanted to have a bar. Because the next question from customers after getting our spirits license was always, “Can I taste it?”

A Japanese whisky event at the shop.

Kayoko Akabori:

We enlisted Anders again to design the space. It was about the same square footage as the old store, and we knew that we would be truncating the front of the space in order to house the bar. So we did have to make the decision to cut some products. But somehow we just kind of fit it all in. We’re continuing to expand the shochu and the sake bottles off-sale for people to take home. Right now, sake is our most popular category in the store. Yoko is the sake director and she makes sure that we have a great selection of sakes online and in the store—very fresh bottles, the newest bottles. 

[Sake Gumi and Shochu Gumi, subscription-based clubs for sake and shochu] are probably the backbone of the shop right now. It really kind of got us through Covid, not just financially, but the community is really strong. We have about 200 Sake Gumi members and about 100 Shochu Gumi members. The clubs are really wonderful, and we put a lot of work into them because they sustain our community. They come in once a month to pick up their sake or shochu. They come to our bar and to our events. We work hard to keep things around that they want, have events for them, give them good discounts, a lot of perks. 

Yoko Kumano:

With the blog, the tagline was, “Everybody eats—let’s talk about it.” That spirit of talking about things and education has always been a big part of Umami Mart. So whether it’s the events or how we explain the products from online to in person, we’re always trying to engage people in conversation, ask questions, be curious. 

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