Onigilly Comes to Town
The fast-casual Japanese food concept and ICA portfolio company is expanding its Bay Area footprint and partnering with Cloud Kitchens to meet growing delivery demand, opening up a new delivery location to serve the East Bay.
Onigilly is a fast-casual restaurant chain specializing in Japanese rice balls, called “onigiri.” Koji Kanematsu founded Onigilly in 2007, after noticing a dearth of healthy, affordable food options in the United States. And when ICA invested in Onigilly in 2018, Koji’s commitment to taking care of his workers and his growth vision were central to the investment.
Since the investment, Koji and his wife Aki have continued to grow the company – investing in production machinery, opening new locations, and creating more good jobs in the process. Onigilly was set to open several new stores this year but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Koji and Aki’s plans had to change. They quickly pivoted, closing two locations in San Francisco, and focused on a new deliver-centric strategy that was better suited to the new economic reality and the public’s changing restaurant habits.
Thanks to Koji’s quick thinking – and the support of his community, he adds – Onigilly is now partnering with Cloud Kitchens, a fast-growing startup that provides access to commercial kitchens optimized for food delivery. The partnership will allow Onigilly to bring its signature onigiri to the East Bay for the first time.
A new location – Onigilly’s fourth Bay Area store – is opening in Oakland this week, and additional stores in partnership with Cloud Kitchens are planned for San Francisco and San Jose by the end of the year.
"I came to realize that there is no time for me crying over what we have lost and giving up our goal here… I started to see this pandemic as an opportunity. I went back to our mission and vision, and started to focus on what we can do to keep on going to achieve our goal in this new life that we are living in,” explains Koji.
Cloud Kitchens’ novel concept seems tailor-made for small businesses that have pivoted to an online-first business model. Cloud Kitchens handles all of the details that come with managing a takeout business, while Koji and Aki’s team focuses on making its specialty – delicious, healthy rice balls and Japanese snacks.
Koji is quick to point out the support he’s gotten from the Bay Area’s business support community, and from the devoted followers of his savory Japanese treats. Having first joined ICA as part of our inaugural ICA Accelerator cohort, Koji has also received advice and legal counseling, as well as emergency relief funding each month since April from food business incubator and ICA partner, La Cocina. The support he has gotten from ICA and La Cocina has eased the stress of renegotiating leases, and provided much needed business support in a fast-changing climate.
2020 has certainly changed Koji’s plans but thanks to good preparation and a clear vision, he and his team have made the necessary changes to adapt the Bay Area’s new reality. And we can’t wait for his new locations to come online. Koji’s approach might have changed but his vision for an expanding empire of Onigilly locations, delivering delicious and healthy food throughout they Bay Area and beyond, and his commitment to create good jobs, remain the same.
“It's different from our original expansion plan […] but I'm hopeful and definitely excited,” he says. We are excited too.