How a Duo Turned a Food Blog Into a Niche Retail Business

It all started seven years ago with a chance meeting on Thanksgiving in an Oakland, Calif., kitchen. Yoko Kumano, who lived in Tokyo at the time, and Kayoko Akabori, who lived in New York City, decided to start a food blog together.

“I knew I wanted to upload something every day, but I didn’t want it to just be me,” recalls Akabori (pictured, right). “Having different viewpoints,” she feels, makes the content more interesting. She adds, “That’s the spirit of Umamimart.  It’s very collaborative.”

And so the Umamimart food and bar culture blog was born.  The blog, which bills itself as “an international food + drink blog with focus on Japanese cuisine” now has almost a dozen contributors writing from cities around the world.

By 2010, both women had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, and the blog had grown to 20,000 page views a month.

Adding E-Commerce to the Blog

“Umami Mart was a labor of love,” says Akabori. She originally worked as a bartender when they started the business, which allowed her time during the day to work on her passion project. “We got to a point where we had to make money to keep this going.” One of the blog’s contributors suggested selling some of the items described in the posts, so Akabori and Kumano added e-commerce to the site.

The online store didn’t fare well at first. “It was tumbleweeds for a year,” recalls Kumano (pictured, left), who had worked in advertising during her stay in Tokyo.  As they started the business, she was freelancing for an ad agency, which allowed her time to ship orders from her living room. But, by late 2011, online sales had begun to take off. The co-founders placed what they thought was a big order from their Japanese wholesalers. When the entire order was pre-sold by the time it arrived stateside in November, Umami Mart was left with no inventory to ship during the holiday season.

“We thought it was a total missed opportunity,” says Kumano, but their venture kept growing.

Expanding Into Traditional Retail

Umami Mart opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in August 2012, in a pop-up space in Oakland where Akabori and Kumano now hold a long-term lease. “As people who’ve never worked in retail and never been business owners, there’s a fear factor, and a pop-up helps with that,” says Kumano. “That was huge — to be able to try it free for six months.” A 2013 holiday pop-up in San Francisco turned into their second bricks-and-mortar location.

“People who had followed the blog come into the store and totally get it,” Kumano says.

Akabori adds, “Opening the shop was really important so we could meet people face-to-face and tell them about the blog. That’s really valuable [because] … there are seven years worth of recipes and how-tos there.”

Kumano attributes some of their success to help from a SCORE counselor: “He gave us one of the best pieces of advice, which is, you’ve got to pay yourselves from the beginning.” Akabori adds that mentors provided “the kind of knowledge you can’t find in any website or blog post.”

Umami Mart’s does 50 percent of its business through its two stores. The rest of its sales are evenly split between wholesale and e-commerce. The food blog that started it all continues to thrive, reaching 70,000 page views each month.

“I think sticking it out is most important,” Akabori says. Kumano adds, “It’s still a passion project.”

Photo courtesy Myleen Hollero.

About Laura McCamy

Laura McCamy is a freelance reporter who has written about economic development, real estate, small business, and other topics for a variety of media outlets. As a longtime business owner, Laura is a firm believer in the power of small businesses to change the world for the better. Follow her on Twitter at @lmcwords.
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