Bright Lights, Little City: Kayo Asazu of Kome, Ni-Kome, Sa-Ten Coffee and Eats and Daruma Ramen

My name is Kayo Asazu. I am a mother, a wife, and I run five businesses with my husband Take. One of those businesses, Sa-Ten Coffee and Eats, introduced us to friends at Casa Brasil who gave us this opportunity to write about how I started my business.

I’ll start from day one, when I landed in Austin. It was March of 1996, and I was just 20 years old. I had taken a year off from college, and had originally planned to be here for just that year (which has turned into 22!). A week after my arrival, I met my boyfriend Take, who was also here to go to school, and we started dating shortly after.

In 1998, Take and I moved to New Orleans to transfer to colleges there, and two years later he graduated from the University of New Orleans and I graduated from the local community college. We decided to apply for a green card and went back to Japan for two years while our application was accepted. That same year, our first child, Kaya, was born. By 2002, we had finally received the green card and returned to New Orleans.

Take started to work as a chef at a local Japanese restaurant, and I was working as a server at another, and we started our actual “life” as a family. We were young and broke, so we had to work a lot. We both worked six days a week. Kaya was going to daycare during the day, so I would pick her up after my lunch shift and take her to our babysitter so I could go back to work the dinner shift. Since she spent most of her time with her babysitter, who was from China, her first word was Cantonese. I didn’t realize that was she was saying meant “water” until I saw her babysitter giving her a cup of water when she said it.

Being New Orleans, there were many days with several streets flooded. When it happened, it blocked the access to our babysitter, so I ended up taking Kaya to work with me. I let her in the small space under the sushi bar shelf with Origami paper and asked her to play until I got off work. Luckily, Kaya was a very good child, and she never gave me a hard time.

In 2003, our second child, Kenta, was born. A couple months before he was born, I stopped waiting tables and began to work as a host. Two weeks after he was born, I went back to work as a server again. It was very hard to work so many hours and raise two small children, but my husband and I would meet at local coffee shops between the shifts and enjoyed talking about our dream restaurant that we would own one day. While we thought about the fact that both our parents let us come to the United States and gave us opportunities, we promised ourselves that one day we would have our own restaurant and be able to give our children those same opportunities.

A few months after Kenta was born, we realized that Austin might be a better place for us to raise our children, so we returned. Over the next few years, Take worked as a sushi chef at local restaurant, Musashino, and I waited tables at a few restaurants whenever Take could stay at home and watch our children. In the meantime, I did some research about how to start a business, and visited a few nonprofit business advisory groups to learn from mentors, including Amy of Amy’s Ice Cream. I also visited a few banks across the city to seek funding, but everyone said that without the experience of running a business, I would not be able to borrow money.

Of course, I knew that no matter how many hours we worked, it was impossible to save enough cash to open a brick and mortar store, so we decided to start small. When we say small, we really mean it. Our first spot was a booth at the farmers’ market every Saturday morning, called Deli-Bento, where we sold Japanese bento boxes. We had just saved up enough for a used minivan so we could get the food to and from the market. At this point, since we did not have enough money for a small space, we also wanted to keep our restaurant jobs to secure income before committing to our own business. I remember that during this time, Take was probably working about 65 to 70 hours a week!

At Deli-Bento, we sold two different kinds of Bento lunch and a few individual entrees every week. We wanted our customers to try as many varieties of Japanese food as possible, so we spent a lot of time planning the menu so we could execute it every week. We would discuss the menu Thursdays, and on Friday I would start to prep by cutting vegetables and making sauces. Friday night, Take would get off work around 11 p.m. and take a nap for a few hours, then wake up and go back to the restaurant kitchen that we were renting. After Take would leave, I carried both kids out to the car and followed him to help until the morning. The kids would sleep in the booth seats while Take and I were cooking, and then we loaded everything into the minivan and sold the food at the market.

I remember that when Kenta was three years old, he would help us offer samples from our table. He would take a nap on the ice chest where we stored food and would make friends at the market. Every weekend was sleepless and tiring, but it was the first opportunity for us to showcase something we had cooked and sold with our own hands. When we saw the same customers come back for our food every weekend, it was such a happy moment. We still have many regulars that follow us to this day. After years of going to the market every Saturday, we were able to sell more food, and finally we saved up enough money to purchase a food trailer in 2009, our “round two.”

I acquired a trailer and it spent months in my driveway while we renovated the inside to run as a sushi trailer. The idea of running a sushi trailer versus the extension of Deli Bento was a simple choice for us, as we would have had to add a vent hood and other gas equipment inside that we could not afford yet. If we were just serving sushi, all we needed was the refrigerator and rice cooker to get the business rolling with minimal start up.

By the summer of 2009, Sushi-A-Go-Go was born. It was a joy to open every day, any time, since the farmers’ market had such limited hours. Although we had proved ourselves with Deli Bento, I was still not confident enough to jump into this full-time, so I asked Take to stay at his full-time job and started the business alone. The original trailer was parked at a small gas station on Manor Road.

People thought I was crazy to sell sushi out of a trailer, but I guess people had a misconception of a trailer not being clean enough for fresh seafood. Whether the attention was good or bad, it was good for my new business, and for the first few months, I spent all day every day in my trailer. I think the first day I only sold two or three rolls, but by the time the first year ended, I was able to sell 150 to 200 rolls a day, which isn’t bad at all!

Back when I was working in the small Japanese restaurant in New Orleans, I was trained by a sushi chef who was very hard and strict. He called me slow and dumb, but because of him, I was fast enough to execute multiple tasks in the trailer at the same time, such as greeting customers, taking orders, being the cashier, and making sushi.

A year after I opened Sushi-A-Go-Go, I was able to save enough to get a second trailer, so I asked Take to cut his hours at work so he could take care of the second trailer for me. By that point, we were doing well enough to ask Take to leave his job at Uchi, but since I knew we were very close to opening our brick and mortar store, I wanted him to stay in the industry and keep up with the trends while networking.

The second trailer, on Barton Springs Road, did just as well as the first one, and we saved enough to invest in our first restaurant by the spring of 2011. We finally found a reasonable place to start Kome Sushi Kitchen, and got started on renovations. Since our budget was still tight, I asked my long time friend Kazu to come help us from all the way in Japan, as he is a skilled restaurant designer. He showed up with a carpenter to make our dream restaurant. Along the way, many friends also would stop by when they had time to help us paint the walls or stain the wood. Our first restaurant was truly made by all of our generous friends.

I had imagined Kome as a small mom-and-pop restaurant with myself and maybe one or two servers to wait tables, and Take making sushi with the help of one or two other people. However, as soon as we opened, those who had followed us from Deli Bento and Sushi-A-Go-Go rushed to the restaurant, and we started to see more new customers every day. Now, six years later, we have moved to a new building a couple blocks from our original location and now have close to 100 seats and 80 employees.

In 2013, two years after we started Kome, we were lucky to be invited by Tim League, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, to move in to their brand new HQ building on 6th street. He is a big ramen fan, so he offered us the opportunity to start a ramen shop in the space called Daruma Ramen. When he offered it to us, it was only a few months after we had started Kome, and Take and I were both very tired. Take didn’t think we could do anything else at that time, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass us by, so I decided to open it without him.

The very next month, I flew to New York and Los Angeles to eat as much ramen as I could and observe the ramen shops and their customers carefully for research. I then flew to Tokyo to go to ramen school to learn to make ramen professionally. By March of 2013, Daruma Ramen was open. It was my intention to make the restaurant as small as possible, so it would give guests the feel of an authentic Japanese ramen shop. My concept was to offer the healthy, clean flavor of ramen using whole chicken broth, since I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to worry about my health when I decided to eat ramen every day. Again, I worked a lot for the first few months until I was able to train the staff well enough.

A few weeks after we opened those doors, another opportunity came our way. One afternoon I decided to get out of the shop during our break and get some fresh air. I visited Canopy art complex to visit one of my artist friends. I realized there was this beautiful, unleased space with large windows, and the interior was left with industrial features of concrete blocks, and metal beams, though the space was empty, I could totally picture artists sitting down there and having a good time with coffee and food. Instantly, I thought the place would be a perfect coffee shop. I knew I was too tired from opening Daruma Ramen and should not think about any more businesses.

After a few days I remembered the space and could not stop thinking of the image of people there enjoying coffee. I decided to call my long time friend, Motoyasu Utsunomiya, who used to join me at different coffee shops throughout the city, as we used to joke around: “One day, we should open our own coffee shop and serve great food and coffee at the same time!” He was in on the idea, and 17 months later, we opened Sa-Ten Coffee and Eats, which specializes in Japanese-influenced food and delicious coffee from Casa Brasil. It was our third restaurant, and I thought that was it.

As I mentioned, we moved Kome in 2017 to the larger location, but I didn’t want to give up the building we worked so hard to renovate with our own hands. Since it was where we started, I could not just leave, but I wanted to use it as a different concept. We figured it was the perfect spot for Sa-Ten’s second location. That same year, Kazu came back from Japan with two other friends, a carpenter and a metal worker. They helped us renovate the space yet again, this time from Kome to Sa-Ten.

Meanwhile, we received another great offer to join some other amazing local restaurants to open up Austin’s first food hall, Fareground at One Eleven. When I heard about this concept of having six popular local restaurants in one spot, it made me so excited and I knew we had to do it. We decided to come in with a sushi and ramen concept, Ni-Kome. Ni means two in Japanese, so it is the second Kome, but it also has elements of the menu from Daruma, so it is more like their child. Ni-Kome opened on January 18, 2018, and Sa-Ten’s second location opened the next day.

Today, I have five locations and about 150 employees total, so when I was dreaming of our small Japanese restaurant, I could not imagine this would be possible. I can’t give enough thanks to my parents, who raised me and gave me the opportunity to be in this country, my husband, who always trusted me, my two kids, who forgave me when I was not available as much as I wanted to be because of work, my friends and employees, who always supported me, and of course, our customers, who support all of us.

I am sure more will come, and I look forward to meeting more wonderful people and opportunities, but I will never forget how I started my business with my husband. I hope to keep opening those doors as if every day were the very first day of our booth at the farmers’ market.