Umami Mart launches a weekly coffee shop with fruit sandwiches and Japanese custard

The 9-year-old Oakland retail shop and bar is evolving once again.

Umami Mart Kissaten’s fruits sando with whipped cream and seasonal fruits. Credit: Umami Mart

Umami Mart
4027 Broadway (near 40th Street), Oakland

Umami Mart has been an Oakland mainstay since 2012, a blog turned retail shop that in 2019 expanded with a liquor store and bar. Now it’s set to expand again with Umami Mart Kissaten, a weekend coffee shop with hand-poured drinks and traditional Japanese cafe sweets. That new offering is set to open on Oct. 17, with service every Sunday during limited hours and for ticketed customers only.

The concept of Umami Mart began five years before its brick-and-mortar opened up shop: In 2007, co-founders Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano — childhood friends who grew up down the street from each other in Cupertino — launched the Umami Mart blog as a way to share their latest food and beverage discoveries with each other while living separately in Tokyo and New York. 

Both eventually found their way back to the Bay Area in 2010, and launched an online shop to accompany the blog. Two years later, that shop’s inventory started to take up too much space in Kumano’s apartment, and they decided to take a risk on a retail space in downtown Oakland. 

“The economy was still pretty depressed [in 2012] so there was an opportunity for us to move into a retail space in downtown Oakland for six months rent free through a program called Popuphood,” Kumano told Nosh. 

“We decided to take the plunge, figuring we wouldn’t have much to lose. Our product lineup included barware, glassware, and housewares when we opened. It became pretty clear during those first couple years that to complete the story in the store, we’d want to sell sake, shochu, and whisky.”

While the business was licensed to sell beer and wine as of 2015 and spirits as of 2017, zoning rules prevented Akabori and Kumano from opening a tasting room or in-house bar. The restrictions on their first space prompted them to move to their current Temescal location, which opened in May 2019. The new space was designed to encapsulate the spirit of the Japanese kaku-uchi, an unassuming combination of liquor store and bar: Upon entering the shop, the walls are carefully lined with a fine selection of Japanese beer, sake, shochu and liquor, along with Japanese kitchenware, barware and snacks. Proceed just a few steps further into the back area of the store, and a minimalist bar appears just past the refrigerated assortment of retail beverages.

On Sunday afternoons, Umami Mart’s bar will become a coffee shop serving drinks brewed with Heart roasters beans. Credit: Umami Mart

Umami Mart saw a successful 2019 in that new location, launching their shochu gumi (a monthly shochu subscription club to complement their 200-plus member sake subscription club, sake gumi). But less than a year later, the pandemic and resulting business restrictions forced Umami Mart to close its doors.

“It was terrifying. How would we survive? Would we survive?” Kumano says of Umami Mart’s closure in March 2020. “Luckily, we had a functioning online store, with curbside pickup enabled already. We were so grateful to all of our regulars in and around Oakland who placed their orders and came to our door with smiles, under masks, during those dark months.”

During the temporary closure of the brick-and-mortar shop, Akabori, Kumano and shop manager Ian Rittmaster started talking about the addition of a coffee offering when the bar was allowed to reopen. Once in-store shopping resumed and the bar reopened, the idea of Umami Mart Kissaten, a weekly coffee house, took shape. 

Umami Mart Kissaten will serve sweets like purin, a Japanese caramel custard not dissimilar to creme caramel or flan. Credit: Umami Mart

The Kissaten, which Akabori and Kumano say is Rittmaster’s brainchild, will offer hand-poured coffee sourced from Portland’s Heart roasters, along with traditional Japanese kissaten fare such as purin (Japanese custard) and fruits sando (Japanese sandwich made with white bread, seasonal fruit and whipped cream) by Maya Kono of San Francisco-based Roots & Craft Tea Roasters. Unlike a traditional coffee shop, it won’t serve walk-in customers. Instead, patrons must purchase a $20 ticket in advance, and sign up for a seating between noon and 3 p.m. Each ticket covers one coffee drink and one sweet, and gratuity is included. Tickets for the full month’s time slots will drop on first Wednesdays, and each visit is limited to 75 minutes. The restaurant expects to sell out of tickets for the tiny bar area very swiftly, so interested diners should act fast. Tickets for this Sunday’s service are available online now.

“After working with Yoko and Kayoko doing curbside pickup through peak pandemic times, I think we started getting a little stir-crazy, thinking of all the things we could possibly do once things started to open up a bit more, and then the idea came up to do a coffee service!” Rittmaster said. “I’ve got a background in coffee, so it’s kind of always something [I had] in my back pocket.”

In addition to barista experience (his resume includes Oakland-originated Blue Bottle Coffee and Berkeley’s Artis Coffee Roasters), Rittmaster has been immersed in Japanese culture from a young age, a son born to parents who taught English in Japan. Although he moved back to the Bay Area when he was three, his mom taught Japanese at a high school in Alamo, and Rittmaster often joined her on annual trips to Japan with her students. While working at Blue Bottle in Jack London Square, Rittmaster first heard about Umami Mart from his customers.

Left to right: Kayoko Akabori, Yoko Kumano, Kayoko’s brother Keisuke Akabori and Ian Rittmaster. The Umami Mart team was at at Keisuke’s LA restaurant, Yojimbo, to celebrate the launch of Umami Mart’s Junmai Sake. Credit: Umami Mart

“I would have customers and co-workers bring in Umami Mart stuff all the time, but I wouldn’t actually go in there myself until they were packing up the Old Oakland shop and getting ready to move to the current location in early 2019,” Rittmaster said. “Not long after that, I was looking for work and was lucky enough to have an old coffee colleague let me know that Umami Mart was looking for staff the night before the posting went up! I jumped on it right away.”

Of course, coffee isn’t the only new beverage Umami Mart is releasing on the world. In recent weeks, the shop also debuted its own Junmai Sake, made by the Kita Shuzo sake brewery in Shiga, Japan. The sake had been years in the making, with production and shipment delayed due to the pandemic. Kumano notes that while the pandemic has caused challenges in the process of curating and procuring goods, the struggle has also served to strengthen their partnerships.

“Our most successful goods are made by people we enjoy working with, are passionate about their products, and have met in person,” Kumano said. “Since we haven’t been able to go to Japan in a while, we have come to value our existing relationships immensely during these times. Whether they live in Shiga, Japan or Los Angeles, the makers we continue to work and collaborate with are those who share a vision to spread joy, whether it’s through design, drinks, or Japanese culture.”

When asked about the future of Umami Mart, Kumano mentions that the store is ever-evolving, but never tied down to a specific end goal. “Kayoko and I always have something up our sleeves, and there will always be more coming from Umami Mart,” Kumano said. “We will continue to have events and popups with collaborators we love to work with. Our process has always been organic — we go with the ideas that excite us!”

Umami Mart is currently open for in-store shopping on Wednesdays through Sundays from noon – 6 p.m. The bar is open on Fridays and Saturdays from noon – 6 p.m. Tickets for the Kissaten coffee service, which launches on Oct. 17, are $20, and must be purchased online. For updates on business hours and events, visit Umami Mart’s website and follow Umami Mart on Instagram.

Credit: Umami Mart