Sake Story - 5 Years Ago!
It was August 7th 2003 at 2:30PM when I opened the door of my "sake shop" to the public. The store was not even finished! Instead of my fancy surfboard like table I had two wooden horses with a massive piece of plywood for the table. The cool tower and blue-bottle cabinet were not finished so I had sake cases piled up at different heights to act like displays. I had a cash box (which we still use today) with no cash in it! Doh! I forgot starter cash. And I only had a black magic marker as a pen for signing credit card receipts (now you know why a keep a cup filled with pens on the counter). In a word, I wasn't ready to open, but I had to!
It took me a year and half to open True Sake. That's a long frustrating time. First I had to re-zone the store to allow for liquor sales - which was a total nightmare! (I tried to not use the "system" known as the "city planners" - bad idea as this "system" is in place for a reason - to job the common guy for the benefit of the present and former city planner employees. I won't call it corrupt, but let's just say it is a case of knowing the right people - and I didn't know 'em!) Then I had to apply for a liquor license, which meant they asked the neighborhood if they wanted a sake store. People could not grasp the concept of store selling just sake. I literally had to beg people. I had four devoted protestors! (One of them actually told me to open a "chocolate store" instead. Ummmmm Okay!)
After 7 months of paying rent the final protestor to my license succumbed. I was bitter, but went out and bought the guy a flower arrangement and said thank you! Now since I had not owned a liquor license and was not guaranteed that I would get one, there was no reason to build out the store! So when I got the okay - they said that I had thirty days to open to the public or I would lose my license. They also gave me a very very strict license - to appease all of my protestors. That is why I cannot allow tastings in my store. This was one of the major conditions. Technically I cannot even taste sake myself with my distributors who bring product by for review. Crazy! In any case, the thirty days went by very quickly. And before I knew it I had to open.
On the first day I sold three bottles of sake - two to family members and one to a fellow storeowner in Hayes Valley who wanted to be my first customer. I was so nervous I forgot to charge him tax. That said - his $20 bill is on the wall behind the counter, and remember there was no cash in the cash box so I had to pay his change from my own pocket! Nevertheless I was now a retail man! (I had zero retail experience before opening True Sake, and I think in the big picture we all should do a tour of duty behind a retail counter so that we can empathize with our fellow citizens.)
On day one I had roughly 75 brews in stock. My goal was to have 100 sakes that I knew inside and out to better recommend to my customers. On the first deliveries of sake from my new distributors I had to send many cases back. I will be honest - the Japanese food guys all tried to shaft me with their inventory. They tried to pass off onto me sakes that were in some cases three years old. That may have worked for the many new non-Japanese owned sushi restaurants that were popping up all over, but hell no would that work with me. In two instances I drove my mini-van at high speeds to their offices to speak with the owners about a "new day" in the handling of sake. They got the religion quickly! (On a side, I am extremely proud of the fact that I was a tough ass when it came to old inventory being delivered to my store. It's completely unacceptable for somebody's first sip of sake to be from a bottle that is way past its prime. That was my code then and still is today - under the watchful eyes of Miwa and Lynette.)
Roughly a year before I opened the now famous split doors I went and spoke with most of my importers and distributors. I had not yet created my logo so I had these cheesy powder blue business cards that were made of felt. (LOL!) In most instances the owners themselves met with me, but at several companies they sent out flunkies. One guy was their beer rep - he kept saying "just sake?" "only sake?" "sake only no nothing else?" he couldn't grasp the logic of opening a store dedicated to just sake. And he wasn't alone. I got many blank face nods that basically said without words "this guy will be closed in a year max!"
My first two meetings with importers are my favorites because both guys to this day are my very dear friends. I happened to be in Hawaii with my family for a holiday vacation, and decided to take a flight to Honolulu to meet with Chris Pearce of World Sake Imports. This was in 2002 and Chris had been peddling brew for a couple of years, and here walks-in this guy who basically said I have so much faith in sake that I want to open up a store dedicated to this wonderful libation. Chris would later say that he didn't think that I was crazy, just a little ahead of my time. He promised to support me however he could and in return I said that I would dedicate a fridge to his product in my store. As my offerings have expanded I had to add other brews to this fridge, but if you look even today all of Chris's sakes are in one fridge together.
The second meeting was with Kazu Yamazaki from Japan Prestige Sake International. And basically Kazu thought that I was nuts! We had dinner at a sushi restaurant in SF, and as the tokurri of hot sake came out I went to pour for him and he said thanks. He didn't pour for me. Huh? I thought that was illegal! Or at the very least bad luck. So I poured for him again, and again he dissed me. Huh? What's going on here? I thought that he was trying to haze me! Then I went to pour for him again and he held up his hand - "Beau, you don't have to pour for me!" I remember that day like it was yesterday. We still laugh about today! (Oh and I forgot to mention that I was wearing a wool Chinese jacket from Shanghai Tang and it was about 120 degrees in the restaurant - I was sweating like a pig, something which Kazu never fails to forget!)
With both of these great contacts and all of the others that I have made over the years I always wanted to impress upon these guys that I only answered to sake within the walls of True Sake. I don't play favorites; I like my friends a lot but always try to have an impartial selection of sake that keeps everybody equal. This is pretty important in this game. I only use sakes that pass my test - the test of picking for you! I have allegiances for certain, but this does not translate into me carrying sakes that are not worth your money. That said I have always adhered to the concept of carrying only imported sakes from Japan. This hurts in many cases, as I have a lot of friends who make sake domestically. But if I were to carry one brand from on brewer then I would have to be equal and carry the others as well, and this would be too much. I'd rather just stay focused on sakes that are not available at local liquor stores or grocery stores.
The first week was a gas! Three bottles the first day - seven the next - eleven the day after etc. I was selling more each day! This game is easy, I thought to myself! But then I had a four bottle day then a two and a friend said welcome to retail. The good news is that total sales for True Sake have gone up from anywhere between 20-25% each year. Thank you! What has been fun are the daily records. I remember my first $1,000 day! That was livin'! Then the $2,000 day - then the three - four etc. What has been unique is watching the patterns of buying shift! When customers first came into the store they would trust my recommendation and purchase on average a $25-$30 bottle of sake. Then they would come back with what I call "eyes wide open" with total disbelief how good that sake was, and would then want two bottles of something similar for a second purchase average price of roughly $50. What a trend I thought, but then the third purchase was usually 3 or 4 small 300ml bottles to keep expanding their pools of understanding sake.
I will be honest - we move a lot of sake! Again thank you. And not a month goes by that I don't get a "thank you" letter from sake brewers whose products grace our shelves. The importers and distributors all thank us from time to time for not only selling their sake, but for helping them expand their sake portfolios. They see in us the pioneers of the retail sake industry in the US, and that is something that I am extremely proud of. We have shaped a market - we have educated a base - and we have implemented a new quality control standard in an industry that was used to hiding shipping dates etc. In five years True Sake has gone from a inventory of 75 offerings to well over 220 with a lot of seasonal brews in the mix. In five years we have gone from a populous of consumers of hot crappy sake who said Jinjo to a savvy group of drinkers who now come in and ask for certain rice varietal sakes. Well done!
Now the meat and potatoes! When I first opened the store I thought for certain that my customers would be 50% Japanese and 50% wine drinkers! Nothing could be further from the truth! No the people who I owe a debt of gratitude to are the disenfranchised wine drinkers who did not have a home. They made sake their home and made True Sake their castle! We are now seeing many more wine drinkers, but on the whole our core has been that group of folks who didn't want to be Robert Parker-fied. I can only hope that the next five years are as fun and successful as the last. In this time at least two other sake stores have opened in the US and I say Hell Yes! The more stores the better! More stores means more demand and more demand means better product for us all. Sake is here to stay and I am just glad that I and Jeff and Miwa and Lynette have all had a little part in the success of sake outside of Japan.
Lastly, as many of you know I have had a pretty rough couple of years on the home front. It has been really tough. My absence from the store is a direct result of these personal issues. Firstly I would like to apologize to all of those who come to the store to see me - I miss you, I really do! Secondly I would like to thank you for supporting me both via sales but more importantly by lending me your emotional support. It helps more than you will ever know. I am indebted to you all and each and every one of you should smile knowing that you have kept this "crazy" idea of a dedicated sake store alive and well. Thank you.