For more than two decades, El Cerrito has found a friendly, dependable place to pick up kitchen staples at mom-and-pop grocery store Yaoya-san. The store stocks yuzu citrus, sake, Japanese sauces, snacks and candies, bento and a small selection of Hawaiian foods, but prides itself most on its fresh sashimi-grade fish and thinly sliced shabu-shabu pork and beef ready for the home cook. Not as well known as Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market, but Yaoya-san has its own devoted following. And while many specialty stores are struggling just to survive, Yaoya-san has recently doubled in size.

In Japanese, yaoyasan (八百屋さん) means “greengrocer.” The honorific -san (さん), usually reserved for people, is used here to indicate informal respect, almost affection, towards a personable, neighborhood fixture. As with greengrocer, yaoyosan can be used to refer to either the shop or the shop’s owner.

In October, Yaoya-san doubled in size after taking over the shop next door. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Which makes owner Tsuneo Endo the yaoyasan behind Yaoya-san.

“We started in a really small store, a couple of blocks down, that’s why we chose the name,” said Endo. “But now we’re getting big, you know.” Endo started the business in 1998, and later moved to 10566 San Pablo Ave. in the Jay Vee shopping center in El Cerrito.

Yaoya-san prides itself on its selection of fresh sashimi-grade fish. Photo: Cirrus Wood

The recent expansion came at an opportune time. Endo was receiving more business in the new location, but his traditional yaoyasan was a little too traditional for customers in wheelchairs. He needed to widen the aisles to make them ADA compliant. “The store was too narrow,” said Endo.

Then in February, the neighboring business, a Japanese stationery and dollar store called Zipang (formerly Ichiban Kan) closed, and Endo acquired the lease to the property. Endo had the dividing wall taken down, kept the produce and freezers in the old section of the store, and moved and expanded the dry goods selection to the new section of Yaoya-san. The expansion opened to the public Oct. 4.

Yaoya-san stocks California-grown produce, including fresh yuzu, when it’s in season. Photo: Cirrus Wood
Yaoya-san stocks California-grown produce, including fresh yuzu, when it’s in season. Photo: Cirrus Wood

“We have more, I want to say, more produce and Japanese products now,” said Endo. “I don’t know how many square foot but we are now double in size.” Which actually makes Yaoya-san quite a bit larger than the average yaoyasan on the other side of the Pacific.

The expansion has been good for Endo. He estimates that only about 30% of his customers are first generation immigrants. The vast majority are Americans curious about Japanese food and culture. Which is exactly in line with why he opened the store to begin with. “We want to show Japanese food to people who don’t know it,” he said.

Yaoya-san is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.