Umami Mart: Come to shop, stay for a drink, and return for the community

FROM BLOG TO STORE — Founded by childhood friends Kayoko Akabori (pictured) and Yoko Kumano, Umami Mart is a specialty store and tasting bar featuring high-end barware, home goods and a hand-picked selection of sake, shochu and whiskies. photo by Greg Viloria

OAKLAND, Calif. — Started and co-owned by childhood friends Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano, Umami Mart is a specialty store and tasting bar featuring high-end barware, home goods and a hand-picked selection of sake, shochu and whiskies.

The idea for Umami Mart was born from a blog they started in 2007, which still runs strong on their site and celebrates food, drink, events, travel and more. The blog entertains while taking you to the personal backstories that highlight the devotion that Akabori and Kumano have to their customers, vendors, colleagues, brewers and other small business owners, among other topics. Whether you’re reading about the craftspeople behind a product they offer, or learning a truly time-saving recipe from their Lazyass cooking column, it is easy to see how this blog became the launchpad for what is now a popular and celebrated spot in Oakland.

Their airy, high-ceiling storefront is filled with all kinds of delightful wares, while featuring an impressive selection of sake, shochu and whiskies, but what really stands out is the warm, friendly atmosphere. Many people who come in seem to be a regular of some sort, greeted by name, welcomed back or invited to try something new.

There are dry goods and artwork and things for your home, but the standout is the bar and kitchenware. The glasses, stemware, stirrers and the jiggers are stunning and will elevate any professional or home bar. If you are a bartender, mixologist or cock-tail aficionado, this is the place to go to source your barware.

Akabori and Kumano travel to Japan to visit vendors and source products personally, and in-person. From nostalgic items such as a Yukihara pot (a mainstay in many Japanese kitchens) to custom designed furoshiki in collaboration with artist Hajime Okamoto, to even a perfectly weighted stainless steel ice cream scoop (if you hold it, you will under- stand), what becomes clear through speaking with Akabori is that everything they carry is sourced and selected with intention and love, while keeping in mind the necessity of function. “We like to make sure that it’s practical, easy to use and well designed. I think Japanese products are all of those things.”

Umami Mart is a specialty store and tasting bar featuring high-end barware (pictured), home goods and a hand-picked selection of sake, shochu and whiskies. photo by Greg Viloria

One of the most recent additions to Umami Mart is a bar located at the back of the store. The high ceilings and tall wall full of bottles give the space an airy feel, while the seating and design of the space give patrons an intimate experience. Kumano is a Kikizakeshi, aka Sake Sommelier, driving the sake selection for the store and monthly subscribers, writing tasting notes and selecting themes for tasting events.

Finally, Akabori and Kumano’s dedication and ways of giving back to the collaborative communities that support them is unique. Every year, Umami Mart celebrates the anniversary of their opening on-site with a matsuri-style gathering, complete with mu- sic, food, drink and festivities, and this year, celebrated their 10th anniversary.

Everyone is welcome at this popular annual event, which also features other local businesses and artists. They also uplift members of their community in very personal ways, such as featuring women trailblazers in brewing on their blog or donating proceeds of a drink on their menu towards to help a personal friend and designer of the space.

Akabori says one of their overarching goals has been to share what is special about Japanese culture to the community and help people revisit or deepen that connection. “We like to bring joy through our products. A lot of our customers visited Japan and then wanted to live through the products from their trips or the experience … People come in with all different kinds of experiences, all tied to Japan.”

However, the experiences that Akabori and Kumano have created with Umami Mart make it clear that people come for more than just to shop, and it’s not slowing down any time soon. “It’s our 10th year, and we wouldn’t be here without our community. We hope that our community keeps growing.”

Umami Mart is located on 4027 Broadway in Oakland, Calif. It’s open Thursdays through Saturdays, from noon to 7 p.m., and Wednesdays and Sundays, from noon to 6 p.m.. The bar is open Thursdays and Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. To learn when their next event is, read their blog, join Sake-gumi and Shochu-gumi (monthly subscription for sake and shochu) or to shop online, visit umamimart.com.

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