Last fall, neighbors saw a once dark and quiet gallery transformed into a bright and open space with brick walls, open shelves and light floors when Umami Mart, a store that carries a variety of Japanese specialty barware, opened in the historic Old Oakland district.
Umami Mart opened its doors thanks to an organization called “popuphood” which helps small business owners establish retail shops in an area that is otherwise lacking them. The stores begin as temporary spaces, and if successful are given the option of signing a long-term lease.
When Umami Mart opened, owners Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano had high hopes that the store would be a success. Following Japanese tradition, they made a wish and filled in one eye of their daruma, a hollow round doll depicting a bearded man, which symbolizes good luck. “You make a wish while you fill in the eye and after the wish comes true you fill in the other eye,” said Tomo Hiratsuka who gave them the doll as a gift. “It’s also a nice reminder of the goals that you’ve made.”
Six months later their wish has come true—last Thursday dozens of neighborhood residents, family, friends and business owners from around the East Bay came out to celebrate the signing of a two-year lease for the store. Guests were greeted with hugs and glasses of champagne to celebrate the occasion. Then it was time to fill in the other eye on the daruma.
“This is so exciting, embarking on something totally new,” Akabori said. “We had six months to test it out and we really felt confident that this could work. It’s thrilling and it’s going to be a long journey. We have a lot of ideas about what we want to do with the space. We have a lot of ideas of how we are going to grow.”
Popuphood founders Sarah Filley and Alfonso Dominguez intend for their program to help entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level, and to revitalize areas of the city where there are too many empty storefronts.
“There was not a lot of investment in retail in Oakland,” Filley said of downtown development in 2011, when they started the program. “This neighborhood has great bars and restaurants, but throughout that time there was not a lot of retail. We wanted to solve the problem of vacancies immediately, use that, using retail as a way to rethink revitalization and also prototype this new initiative in Old Oakland.”
Popuphood consults with independent retailers and property owners to fill previously vacant storefronts by providing resources to business owners, including offering six months free rent in Old Oakland storefronts and loaning them tools. That allows owners to focus on their business without worrying about some upfront costs, Alfonso said.
In addition to the support from popuphood, Akabori and Kumano have a network of partnerships with other local companies, many of which have been established in the Bay Area within the last year. They carry custom ceramics designed by Atelier Dion in Oakland, including a set of tea cups created especially for Umami Mart, as well as honey produced by East Bay Urban Bees. The wine served at many shop events—including the lease signing celebration—is from Bartavelle, a Berkeley-based coffee and wine bar.
Residents in the surrounding community said they are excited about the specialty store moving in on a longer-term basis. “I live just up the street,” said Vanessa Gomez-Brake, who has been a customer almost since day one. “I have always been interested in Japanese everything. Even though they have only been here six months, I have purchased maybe three or four times here. I always find something that I apparently need.”
Carolyn Moore brought a friend into the store on the day of the party to enjoy the celebration and to help pick out a housewarming gift. “There is a lot of appeal beyond Japanese cuisine here,” Moore said. “They have a lot of bar appliances and tools that are useful. Beyond that, I actually prepare a lot of vegetables and there are a lot of cutting implements here I find useful, as well as tea preparations.”
Attendee Jennifer Easton of the City Design Collective, which provides consultation on urban design practices and revitalization strategies in Oakland, said that because of her work with artists, she is familiar with the concept of popups and is thrilled with Umami Mart’s lease signing. She said the art community often tests the market with a temporary space that turns into a permanent location. “That these guys got a lease out of doing a popup is fantastic,” Easton said. “Yeah! It works—it actually works!”
Now that they have a longer lease, the Umami Mart partners will begin to work on some of the ideas they’ve been discussing—a change here or there to the space that was not possible before, like adding more shelving or installing new electronic equipment, Kumano said.
They say support from friends, family and business owners has made it possible for them to commit to staying in their space. “It’s been really easy working here in Oakland and making friends,” Akabori said.