Monday, July 30, 2012

SoCal Omusubi with Sunny Blue

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica Omusubi restaurant Sunny Blue.
Sunny Blue

Sunny Blue Celebrating 2 Years of Bringing Omusubi to Main Street

Sunny Blue, the only omusubi shop in Santa Monica, actually the only omusubi shop Southern California, just turned two years old. Co-owned by the cheery Keiko Nakashima, along with her father Mitsuo Numano, this teeny tiny Main Street restaurant is packed with customers of all folds. From adventuresome foodies to frugal students to local families they all come together to create a community of omusubi lovers.

Omusubi (also called onigiri) are triangular-shaped stuffed rice balls wrapped in nori. “In Japan, people of all ages eat omusubi everyday like we eat sandwiches here in the U.S,” explains Keiko. “People would take them for lunch and for outings such as field trips and events. They’re a grab and go for our customers to savor them any time and anywhere.”

How Sunny Blue came to be was the result of a whole lot of kismet and international travel. Keiko was born in Japan, raised from elementary school to sixth grade in America, she then moved back to Japan for middle and high school before returning to the States permanently for college. “I went to FIDM where I majored in merchandizing. I always knew what I wanted to do, or at least I thought I knew what I wanted to do. After college, I got my job and got married right away.” But after spending years being a homemaker, she has four children between the ages of 10 and 18, Keiko found herself somewhere she would have never expected herself to be.

“When I was in elementary school I would tell my mom, ‘please don’t make me that for lunch,’ because the kids would tease me. It’s definitely ironic that I’m making omusubi now.” Keiko notes that many of her Japanese American customers have similar stories. “We all went through the same thing; it’s really crazy.” How she ended up owning a popular restaurant selling the one thing she abhorred as a child has fate written all over it, fate and Pinkberry.

It all started four years when Keiko’s father, Mitsuo came over from Japan for a visit, during the Pinkberry boom. “My parents had come to visit and I was taking them around L.A. and I told them, ‘I need to show you this yogurt place. It tastes just like the yogurt places of my childhood in Japan.’” Her parents loved it, and they weren’t alone. At this time yogurt shops were exploding all over Los Angeles with the force of a tsunami wave.

When Mitsuo returned to Japan his nephew started telling him how he had just entered the yogurt business. “My cousin said, ‘it’s a really big boom. You should go for it!’” Mitsuo had recently retired from being a Vice President of optical company that manufactured prisms for everything from computers to cameras to satellites. “He wanted to do something else with his free time so that talk with my cousin really opened his eyes,” noted Keiko. “So one thing lead to another and we decided to open up a frozen yogurt business in the States.”

“It definitely seemed like kismet. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always wanted to own my own shop and then here is my father saying, ‘you should open up a yogurt shop!’ But by the time I started looking around there were too many, the market was saturated.” Keiko realized yogurt would end up being a fad. “I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing so I realized that we needed to do yogurt and something else.”

The something else turned out to be omusubi. “My husband said, ‘People really love Japanese cuisine, they love sushi. Omusubi is an easy concept.’ Nobody was doing it so I knew as long as the food was good and the concept was good it was going to do well. So I just went for it.”

In the beginning Sunny Blue offered six different omusubi flavors, by comparison they are now offering twelve flavors along with side dishes. Sunny Blue’s staff impregnates each omusubi full of filling of Keiko’s own design such as Spicy Salmon, cured salmon with chili seasoning, or Miso Mushroom, stuffed with king oyster mushrooms and enoki mushrooms sautéed with ginger miso sauce. All running in the choice price range of two to four dollars each. Each omusubi at Sunny Blue is individually prepared and served on a taco-truck style paper plate, convenient for takeouts. They offer five different Vegan options for the non-meat/ non-dairy crowd.

Naming it Sunny Blue was her Dad’s thing. “He was inspired by the founder of Sony, who originally wanted to name his company ‘Sonny Boy.’” The story goes that they ended up shortening the name to Sony for pronunciation reasons, but Mitsuo wanted to use “Sunny” to reference his hero. And the “Blue,” it represents the ocean that connects Japan and California.

Keiko has lived in the Valley for twenty years, but is as “Always West of Lincoln,” as they get. “Omusubi is derived from a Japanese word “musubu” which means to hold together or connect,” she notes. “Here at Sunny Blue we believe in holding hands with the local businesses and local customers while connecting with the environment.” Sunny Blue has a frequent customer program (categorized by first names) where if you buy 10 you get one free. Sunny Blue tries to hire local students whenever possible and Keiko serves on the board of the Main Street Business Improvement Association. “I love Main Street, we’re a community. We all know each other on the block. If a light goes out I can go next door and borrow a bulb.”

This feeling of community is also found in Sunny Blue’s relationship to the community. “It’s intimate here, people stop by all the time. They’ll come back from the beach, swing by, and say ‘my child wants to show you her new wand.’ It’s such a community, I feel like a family.” There are a million stories of how Keiko’s found her way into the hearts of her customers. One time she ran into one of her customers while picking up some strawberries at One Life market, her customer ended up bringing her back to her house because she wanted to show Keiko where she lived. Another time one of the few stools outside Sunny Blue was rocking to side to side. “John, one of my customers, offered to fix it. He took it home, repaired it, and brought it back the next day. That was amazing!”

And there’s the time one of her customers, an elementary school student, invited us to her theatrical play performance. “When we went she was so happy we were there. It was so much fun! I try my best to go and watch whenever I’m invited. I love my customers, I totally appreciate them.”

But Sunny Blue isn’t just for locals anymore. “We were recently in the Frugal Finds section of L.A. Magazine. It’s driven a lot of customers here.” Sunny Blue has a really good Internet record; “we’re usually number one on Yelp for Santa Monica Cheap Eats and three or four in all of Los Angeles.” But even as the non-locals pour in Sunny Blue will always have the hearts of Main Street Santa Monica.

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