At Umami Mart, two friends create a shop (and blog)
that celebrates drink, design, and Japanese culture
By Shanna Farrell
Photography by Flashpoint Collective
Take a seat at the Ramen Shop bar and learn about an often unnoticed part of bartending. Chris Lane, the popular restaurant’s bar manager, has carefully arranged all manner of tools at the bartenders’ stations: tins of all sizes, beaker-like pitchers with fat bottoms, long skinny spoons, and short measuring devices. Each item will be used with purpose; different tools for different drinks. Like many bartenders, Lane has chosen his team’s tools intentionally. And just as with ingredients, there’s a story behind every tool.
Now follow Lane to Umami Mart, the place he has shopped for tools since before Ramen Shop opened. Nestled into the heart of Old Oakland at 815 Broadway, the shop is a daily celebration of drink, design, and Japanese culture. The owners import kitchen goods and barware from Japan, offering a thoughtfully curated selection both in the shop and through their online store. More recently, the establishment has grown into a bottle shop and conbini (Japanese convenience store).
A shared passion
Umami Mart is an amalgamation of histories, specifically those of co-owners Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano and their shared passion for Japanese culture. The two are California natives, hailing from Cupertino. They developed an interest in drink culture after becoming friends in high school. Both started college at UC Santa Barbara. “Yoko hightailed it out of there after the first year,” Akabori remembers. “I ended up at UC Santa Cruz,” Kumano confirms.
After graduation, Akabori’s aspiration for a museum career took her to New York, where her penchant for quality cocktails and food unfurled among the city’s endless offerings. Kumano graduated as well and moved to Berkeley, then to Tokyo where she worked in advertising with Nikon and wrote copy for catalogs and online documentation. “I was a salary man for four years, but that included eating and drinking like one,” she recalls. “That’s where I really learned about sake and shochu and eating. It was a culture I had never been exposed to here. Moving there and experiencing the social setting was as much of an education as getting thrown into a corporate job.”
The two reconnected in 2006 when internet culture was booming. They discussed ideas on how to stay in touch via their interests, like exploring bars in their neighborhoods. “I wanted to start a blog because it was an easy platform to get my opinions out to the world,” Akabori says. Inspired by a Japanese supermarket in New York’s East Village called Jas Mart, Akabori decided to call the blog “Umami Mart” and found an available web address, launching the site in 2007. “It was easy to set up, upload photos, and publish. I’m not a design person at all,” she says, “but Yoko is, and we made a good team from the beginning.”
Adventures, real and virtual
Community has always been a driving force behind Umami Mart. Akabori and Kumano enlisted several friends to write columns for the blog.
Their starting team included designer Anders Arhøj from Copenhagen; food photographer Erin Gleeson; Ryohei Yamamoto (known as MOTO), who wrote about recipes and packaging; and Payman Bahmani, who wrote about cocktails in a column called Happy Hour. In order to bring people together, Akabori organized Umamiventures, which were like meet-ups. “We would go do crawls in different neighborhoods, like try dim sum in Flushing, Queens, or tacos in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—places you would read about but wanted people to go with to try,” she says.
In addition to the growing success of the events, Bahmani’s Happy Hour column took off. “We quickly discovered that his posts were the most widely read,” Kumano recalls, crediting him with strengthening Umami Mart’s ties to the cocktail community. Bahmani subsequently discovered his true calling: Quitting his law job, he now works full-time as a professional bartender in Singapore.
Akabori and Kumano were reassessing their careers as well. In 2008, Akabori moved back to the Bay Area and started bartending, first in San Jose and later at Camino in Oakland. By 2010, Kumano had also returned to California, citing a desire to commit more fully to Umami Mart. Their next challenge was to turn this work into a paying gig.
Neither felt that involving advertisers was the solution. They had long noticed that there weren’t many stores in America (or the Bay Area) that carried Japanese products, including barware. They decided to fill this niche and slowly started importing bar tools, sake ware, and tea ware. “We started with ten SKUs of items. It was really limited,” says Akabori. “We had cases in tiny quantities, about ten, 20, or 30 of each.”
“At first nothing happened. It was like tumbleweeds.”
That’s how Kumano remembers it went at first. “And then we started getting more orders, but because we were ordering such small quantities from Japan, we would sell out quickly.” The novice entrepreneurs progressively started ordering more to meet demand. “Pretty soon, my apartment was full of stuff: peanuts, boxes, and inventory,” Kumano says.
By the winter of 2012, what had begun as a conversation on how to declutter Kumano’s apartment had morphed into a brick and mortar shop on Broadway in Oakland. The duo had successfully applied to a neighborhood rejuvenation program called Pop-Up Hood and got the space, a former art gallery, which allowed them six rent-free months to experiment. They designed the space with Arhøj, one of their original writers, and turned the dark and ill-maintained gallery into a bright, clean shop. Their opening party was packed, and their customer base and community have only grown since.
Bar tools, meticulously arranged on display tables in both the front and back of the shop, represent the majority of the shop’s sales, both there and online. Many local bartenders are loyal customers, coming from places like Nopa, Prizefighter, Holy Water, and the Interval, as well as Ramen Shop. Claire Sprouse, co-founder of consulting and education company Tin Roof Drink Community, and currently at Tosca, is among these frequent shoppers. “Umami Mart came onto my radar because at the time there was really no other place in the Bay Area to get quality cocktail tools,” she says. “Even though the market has expanded, I keep going back to them because they have a completely unique perspective.”
Tools that inspire respect
Umami Mart’s wares are a carefully curated collection. Of the options before Umami Mart opened Lane says, “There weren’t stores in the U.S. that sold well-made bar tools, only restaurant supply stores that carried products that felt like an afterthought.” On his trips to Japan, Lane notes the detail, pristine aesthetic, and respect that bartenders there pay to their tools. “I liked the thoughtfulness, design, and feel,” he adds.
In developing Umami Mart, Akabori and Kumano have built relationships with manufacturers who think about kinetics (like the aerodynamics of shakers), the context in which they will be used, and the high quality materials that mean the tools will get better, not weaker, with repetitive use. It’s taken effort and patience: Japanese companies have not generally looked to build an American market because their products sell well to Japanese bartenders who understand and respect the quality. Akabori and Kumano make annual visits to the factories in Japan. “Curation takes time,” Kumano says. “We had a head start with the online store, but time is probably the most important thing in building a relationship and trust with Japanese businesses.”
The aspirations of the co-owners don’t stop with drinkware. They now carry Japanese beer and sake. Their Sake Gumi (sake of the month club) has over 130 members, and while they have ideas daily about how to grow Umami Mart, they expect barware will always be a cornerstone of their work. “Evidently, the world was waiting for a Japanese bar tool store in downtown Oakland,” Akabori laughs. But, as Kumano adds, “There’s an automatic connection with the story and the quality behind the product.”
So, next time you sit down in front of your local barkeep and order a drink, watch a little closer. You might be looking at some extra-special tool.
Oakland based photographers Sedona Turbeville and Dan Moore make up the editorial + commercial duo Flashpoint Collective. They are passionate about capturing food and food culture. flashpointcollective.com