Onigilly Brings Japanese Street Food to San Francisco with an Organic Twist

By Celeste LeCompte

If you live in just about any city in the U.S., you’ve probably noticed an uptick in enthusiasm for all things street food. In San Francisco, that craze encompasses everything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs and empanadas to waffles and creme brulee, but Koji Kanematsu and Kan Hasegawa think they’ve got the next big thing: onigiri.

Essentially, onigiri are tightly packed balls of rice with a simple seaweed wrapper — think sushi, but without the fish. While they’re a very popular street-food snack in Japan, they’re hard to find in the U.S., and one night, in a fit of craving that was part hunger and part homesickness, the two decided to show America what onigiri was all about.

Because this is San Francisco, not Yokohama, the two decided to innovate on the traditional format, choosing American-friendly flavors like chicken teriyaki and eggplant and opting for organic ingredients whenever possible. They also swapped the seaweed wrappers for pretty soy papers, and shaped their treats into triangles. Hasegawa, who worked at a cafe, convinced his boss to let them test some samples with his customers; the two were pleased with their sales, which Hasegawa says were similar to the pastries.

Hasegawa’s dream has been to open his own restaurant, and Kanematsu had experience opening a U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese Internet company, so the two thought they were well-positioned to start a business of their own. They called it Onigilly, and began looking into what it would take.

The process was more daunting than they thought: rents and loans on commercial space were expensive and hard to come by for two novice entrepreneurs, and the size and scale of U.S. restaurant space was a shock to the two Japanese men. Next, they turned to the city, which proved to be somewhat less than helpful at helping realize their dream: “They told us to work for a taco truck!” Kanematsu exclaims.

Finally, they began looking for a commercial kitchen space to rent, and came across food business incubator La Cocina. While the organization typically focuses on women, it accepted Kanematsu and Hasegawa into its program, and the two have thrived. They sell their onigiri to catering clients at $2.75 a piece (a minimum order is $200), and they do enough business that they sometimes have to turn down clients.  Most remarkably, though, the two won a coveted spot at Justin Herman Plaza, part of the city’s recent efforts to support food carts.

Beginning this summer, Onigilly will be selling lunch boxes (side salad, garnish, three onigiri, $7.95) and individual onigiri at the cart location. But their dreams don’t stop there. “It’s going to be great,” Kanematsu says. “His dream is to make a cafe and my dream is to make a big corporation.”

To that end, the duo envisions growing their business over the next year or two, potentially adding more cart locations, before establishing a flagship restaurant that can anchor an eventual chain of 500 Onigilly shops throughout the U.S. “That was our first goal,” says Kanematsu. “We tried to think about this business that way: systematic, simple, scalable.”

But first, it’s time to focus on the task at hand: to move their business plan along to the next level, Kanematsu and Hasegawa need to sell just 300 onigiri a day.


This post is the first in a series of monthly profiles of businesses associated with La Cocina, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that aims to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities. La Cocina focuses primarily on women from communities of color and immigrant communities. Their vision is that entrepreneurs will become economi cally self-sufficient and contribute to a vibrant economy doing what they love to do.

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