A second Japantown? Probably not, but noteworthy nonetheless

The entrance to Mochill Mochi Donut at Stonestown Mall in San Francisco.

BRANCHING OUT — Mochill Mochi Donut, which started in San Francisco’s Japantown, opened another location in the city’s Stonestown Mall. photo by Greg Viloria/Nichi Bei News

Some have called it a “second Japantown” and many more have disagreed, but there’s no denying that Stonestown Galleria in the southwest corner of San Francisco has become a destination thanks to Japanese-affiliated brands making inroads to the mall.

The mall features a number of popular destinations, including restaurants such as Marugame Udon and Kura Revolving Sushi, as well as major retailers Uniqlo and Daiso. However, the San Francisco Standard’s characterization of the mall as the city’s second Japantown might have been premature.

“I texted (San Francisco Standard writer) Han Li,” Grace Horikiri, executive director of Japantown Community Benefit District, said. “I said, ‘really?’”

Still, businesses have opened up shop in Stonestown, causing some leaders, such as Japantown Merchants Association President Richard Hashimoto, to express worries that potential merchants or Japantown’s current merchants might leave for Stonestown if they see greener pastures.

So why did so many Japanese-affiliated businesses open in Stonestown? As Harry Mok, San Francisco Chronicle’s Opinion section assistant editor, supposed: it might have something to do with the city’s demographics. Japanese udon chain Marugame Udon opened at Stonestown in 2018. Kristin Yi, Marugame’s director of marketing, said they initially chose the location in light of the foot traffic and the amount of Asian shoppers. That investment paid off, as Yi said the Stonestown location ranks among the top five restaurants in the world for her company.

Marugame’s popularity, in turn, helped inspire other businesses to move in. Matcha Cafe Maiko’s owner Chris Chin cited the udon restaurant in the mall encouraged him to open his second location in Stonestown since opening his first store in San Francisco’s Japantown in 2018.

“We knew we wanted the foot traffic. And because we saw Marugame was here, Uniqlo is here, it’s kind of like the same core market in a way, so we thought OK, it might do well here, and so we gave it a shot. And so far it’s turned out to be a good decision,” Chin said.

And Matcha Cafe Maiko, in turn, inspired Mochill Mochi Donut to expand to the mall as well.

“When we opened our Stonestown location back in 2021, we decided to open because we thought Stonestown was one of the highest foot traffic malls in S.F. and it’s where most of the SFSU students spend time at,” Taisuke Yamamoto, vice president and managing director of Yamamoto Holdings ­— owner of the Mochill Mochi Donut chain — said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News. “And since we knew that Marugame and Matcha Maiko were very busy, we thought our products would match the demographics!”

Darren Iverson, senior general manager of Stonestown Galleria, said they will ride the momentum of its popularity.

“Stonestown Galleria has a great mix of tenants that includes international, domestic, or local brands,” Iverson said in an e-mailed statement to the Nichi Bei News. “Our goal is to be a gathering spot for the community and to be that we need to have a wide and diverse offering. We want to appeal to everyone.”

The mall’s characterization as a Japantown might have been premature. And while focusing on the Japanese-affiliated businesses indicates a Japanese-influence on the mall, Iverson’s claims that the mall has a mix of international, domestic and local brands is also correct. Beyond the observation of Japanese businesses opening in Stonestown, the mall is home to a number of major brands such as Express, Apple and Chipotle. Along with the major chain retailers, the mall also has locations for iFun, Fanloli and Kokoro (Jewelry), three stores that have, while not Japanese-affiliated, have also opened in Japantown as well.

The presence of merchants alone, however, do not make a community, and even more measured reactions from the Japantown community indicated such.

“I didn’t necessarily take great umbrage with it,” Jeremy Chan, a board member of the Japantown Task Force, said during the organization’s November Cultural Heritage Sustainability Committee meeting. “At most, the perspective it’s missing is that the article has an economic focus and the only criticism I would have is, Japantown is defined by more than just its businesses. They’re an essential part of it, but so are the community organizations of which Stonestown does not have any.”

Matcha Cafe Maiko’s Chin added, if anything, the demographics of Japantown’s shoppers are unique among his five locations in Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco.

“J-Town is mostly, half tourist, half locals, whereas Stonestown and all other locations are generally all local neighborhood demographics,” he said.
The matcha specialty store owner also acknowledged that fellow Japanese-affiliated businesses opening in the mall attracted him to open up in Stonestown, but it is still premature to call it a Japantown.

“(Japantown) has a really strong community support from the Japanese community to keep it authentic, whereas out here at Stonestown, I mean there is a lot of Japanese inspired retail, food and entertainment that’s coming, but it still doesn’t have that same Japanese community kind of support over here,” Chin said.


Japanese-inspired businesses at Stonestown Galleria

Japanese-inspired businesses in the Stonestown Galleria mall, and/or those with another location in San Francisco’s Japantown:

2nd Street
Candy Doll*
Fanloli Beauty*

Marugame Udon & Tempura
Kura Revolving Sushi
Gram Café Pancakes
Mochill Donuts*
Matcha Café Maiko*
Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake
Coming in 2024: Round 1 Bowling & Arcade

*also has a SF Japantown location

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