Umami Mart opens specialty Japanese bar and kitchenware store in Old Oakland

Co-owners Yoko Kumano and Kayko Akabori in their new store Umami Mart in Oakland.

Co-owners Yoko Kumano and Kayko Akabori in their new store Umami Mart in Oakland.

Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano, friends since college, recently opened a new store called Umami Mart in the heart of Oakland’s historical district, where they offer unique merchandise as well as their insight about cocktails and Japanese cuisine.

The store, located on 8th Street and Broadway, opened August 4 and specializes in kitchen and barware. But before it became a store, Umami Mart was originally a blog where contributors from around the world discussed food and—of course—drinks. “We have the cocktail guide, we have a beer guide, we have a shochu guide. We also have a writer who writes often about sake,” Kumano said.

Customers talk about the space and discuss fine dining in Oakland.

“Beverages are the start of your meal,” Kumano continued. “Everybody drinks. It’s celebratory all at once and it’s a very approachable luxury. You go somewhere for coffee, it’s your time. It can be $2 to $5, not very expensive. It’s a little treat.”

On the blog, they also write about unusual dishes, such as one of Kumano’s favorite items, Ikura, which is salmon roe cured with salt and Japanese sake and topped with a raw egg. “Its local and delicious and very Japanese,” Kumano said.

In 2010, the Umami Mart Shop began selling bar and kitchenware from Japan online. The collection started small, with only a few select items. But soon they realized that a lot of people were looking specifically for Japanese cocktail ware. The co-owners said that providing hard-to-find items helped to create a market for the items made available exclusively through Umami Mart, such as bell-style jiggers, which are used to measure drinks by the ounce, or the Umami Mart travel mug, which is decorated with images of cakes and fruit and cocktail glasses, and was designed specifically for the owners.

“Specializing right now really makes sense, especially for an online store,” Kumano said. “If you can find it anywhere like on Amazon, then why would they come to Umami Mart?”

Their concept for opening the Oakland storefront was to provide unique items that bar and cooking enthusiasts can use to create the unusual drinks they read about on the Umami Mart blog.  The transition from cyberspace to a brick and mortar building was very sudden. The discussion about having an actual store only began six months earlier—a necessity because all of the products were being housed in Kumano’s home, which was getting crowded, Akabori said. Because the blog’s writing team also likes to host events such as drink or food tastings, they decided to take the next step and open a store.

“Then we were invited by popuphood, a neighborhood initiative that was started not even a year ago, where they give prospective retailers six months rent free,” Akabori said. “They were keen on letting us try it out, and the space was empty, miraculously.”

Customers browse in Umami Mart in Old Oakland.

In less than two months they were scraping, sanding and painting the interior of a building that had previously served as an art gallery, transforming black floors and dark walls into the space sketched by Anders Arhoj, also known as Mr. Skankynavia, a designer and illustrator in Copenhagen.

Today, Umami Mart’s kamon or family crest—an image of a circle containing three circles shaped like a tree—beckons from the storefront windows for pedestrians to come closer. The interior is awash with white floors and white walls that are softened and warmed by the wall of red brick that extends the length of one side of the space.  To the left, the white wall is decorated with three rows of arrows that point outward, ensuring only good luck finds its way into the store, says Akabori. Off to the right, a collage of artwork presents the store’s name in varying shapes and forms.  A white Japanese curtain hangs on the brick wall behind the counter and in the center is an assortment of barware, drinking containers and accessories displayed on two long white tables.

The items selected by Akabori and Kumano often serve multiple purposes, such as the Yarai mixing glasses on display, which are used to create martinis and Manhattans and most often used by professional bartenders. They have a wide mouth and a beaker shaped spout for easy pouring. The Umami Mart website provides a link that customers can click on to learn how to properly use the mixing glass made of crystal with a Japanese Yarai-weeve pattern. They also carry more traditional Japanese items such as the  “Sawa” kyusu, a traditional one-handed teapot made by Hakusain Porcelain in Japan, which won the 2009 award for best design from the G-Mark system, which screens a variety of products for the Japanese Institute of Design Promotion.

On Saturday, customers trickled in one by one before they began entering the space in groups. Some had read about the grand opening. Others are followers of the blog and consider themselves more than novices when it comes to preparing a good cocktail or finding the best Japanese food establishment.

“I saw the store opening in the news,” said Ming Tsai as she and the owners talked about various Japanese restaurants in the area.

On the other hand, Misa Kido came into the store because she was attracted to its look. Once inside she found a wood handled paring knife with a sheath in the same design. “I’ve been looking for a knife that I could take camping and that I can use for real cooking,” she said. “When I opened it the blade inside was so pretty. I just happened to walk by and I am glad that I did.”

Customers take in the selection of merchandise offered at Umami Mart in Old Oakland.

One of the things that set Umami Mart’s wares apart from other retail stores with similar merchandise is the fact that the owners know the products, said Kumano. “One of us goes to Japan and talks to the distributor or manufacturer. We are always checking the quality of our products. It’s just Kayoko and I, so we know everything about everything in the store,” Kumano said.

Their readers also trust the recommendations about products and services provided by Umami Mart, Akabori said. Several readers attended the grand opening to see the store and to have the opportunity to talk about food and drinks in person.

In the future, the owners would like to expand the space in the back of the store and put in a large table for tasting events and to bring the those elements discussed in the blog—like whiskey tasting and food sampling—into the retail space. They would also like to begin importing high quality Japanese food, such as seaweed and condiments, for sale in the store. Until then, they say it is amazing to have the people who read their blog come to Umami Mart to find that special item that will help them create their perfect drink.

Writing about drinking started out as a hobby, Akabori said—“That is why it is so amazing that we are living the dream.”

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