For the Sake of Sake: A Taste of Japan at Ozumo

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Pictured above: Ozumo’s Buta Kimchi

The story of Ozumo doesn’t begin with food. It begins with baseball. Around 20 years ago, founder Jeremy Umland traveled to Japan to play baseball, and, while there, gathered an affinity for the country: its language and culture — and, of course, the food. Returning to the United States, he noticed the lack of Japanese restaurants and the vision for Ozumo was born.

Everything seemed in place when Ozumo — created in collaboration with Japanese design firm Super Potato —  was ready to open its doors in San Francisco; except that it did so shortly before 9/11. As the nation’s future began to seem uncertain, so did the restaurant’s.

“Jeremy didn’t know if he had picked the wrong time or the location, but he battled through, and eventually it kind of just took off. After a year or two, they started ramping up and the restaurant started doing better and better,” says Andrew Fuentes, Director of Operations and Service at Ozumo Concepts International.

About two years ago, a second Ozumo location opened in Santana Row in San Jose. It differed slightly from its big sibling, offering both sushi and Izakaya cuisine, with an emphasis on “tapas” style dishes designed to be shared.

That’s where Fuentes got involved. Entering as the Director of Service and General Manager, he brought a unique background to a location that struggled early on to have the same success as the original Ozumo. Coming from the Michelin realm — he had worked with six Michelin-starred restaurants prior to the role —  Fuentes helped revitalize the restaurant, adjusting it from a late night spot to a dinner-and-music environment.

“It was really good timing. In some ways it allowed me to get really involved with the restaurant in a very detailed way,” he says. “I’ve been able to learn a tremendous amount.”

Learning is at the core of the Ozumo experience. When guests come to the restaurant, they are seeking a taste of Japanese food and culture — and a taste of what it is now, not from 30 years before. Ozumo has stayed agile, evolving to provide a glimpse of Japan today, a commitment reflected in the menu, which adapts to reflect contemporary flavors. The restaurant also emphasizes local products, using a small seafood vendor to get fresh and regional food. And don’t forget the booze. The sake menu is extensive, to say the least.

“There’s enough of a sake offering that a sake sommelier can feel proud to bring someone in there, but it’s not too intimidating to a sake novice. The team has done a really good job of bridging that gap,” says Fuentes.

But good food and drink can only go so far in a city with a wealth of it, and Fuentes attributes part of Ozumo’s success to the care that the staff brings to the job.

“Almost everybody cares about what they’re doing. You can’t teach that,” says Fuentes.

In the middle of a shift, a server may start making little goodie bags for kids because their parents think it’s cute, and other servers begin to do the same. Servers are committed to developing their skills, learning about the industry and providing the best hospitality experience possible. Some team members have been around for over a decade, if not longer. There’s an emphasis on community that Fuentes believes encourages people to remain working at the restaurant — and encourages guests to keep returning.

The strong bond between staff members and between the staff and customers is evident in the way Ozumo and its regulars assisted team members during the COVID-19 shutdowns. After hourly employees were laid off or furloughed, Ozumo hosted a silent auction in early May, gathering about $30,000 for the staff. Those in need were able to submit applications and receive financial assistance while the restaurant was closed.

“All the regular people that came to the restaurant went above and beyond in level of support,” says Fuentes. “The community really rallied around us.”

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