Abokichi
By YP Contributor

Dupont Street, via Tokyo and New York City

Jess Mantell was a graduate student in media design and Fumi Tsukamoto, a native of Japan, was working as a management consultant when they met in Tokyo. Having bonded over the cuisine of the city, where a lunch can range from $3 to $300 and restaurant hopping is a typical Friday night activity, they decided to combine their talents and passion after moving to Toronto.

Knowing that Toronto has 32 farmers’ markets, versus four in Tokyo and 28 in Manhattan (where Fumi has also lived), Fumi thought that the maturity of Toronto's food market would allow them to do really innovative things. Inspired by their time in Tokyo, Jess and Fumi started making onigiri ― Japanese rice balls ― and selling them at Toronto markets in 2013, operating under the name Abokichi.

We hadn’t considered taking over another business. We were really planning to just start from scratch in our own shop. It really just seemed to make sense and we liked the idea of it so we went for it. - Jess Mantell, co-owner
Abokichi - grilled sandwiches, vegan roti, soups, salads, fresh juice, onigiri, freshly pressed juice, cookies, treats

I Was Looking For a Mentor, I Got a Sandwich Shop

Jess likens onigiri to bagels in the west, as bagels have really achieved widespread acceptance in Japan. She saw no reason why the same could not happen for onigiri in Toronto -- and she was right. As the popularity of their onigiri grew, the two realized they needed their own base of operations. While researching possible locations to set up their own shop, Jess wandered into the Annex HodgePodge at Dupont and Spadina to ask for some advice. She ended up with a lot more than that.

The former owner was planning on selling, but the pair “hadn’t considered taking over another business,” according to Jess. “We were really planning to just start from scratch in our own shop. It really just seemed to make sense and we liked the idea of it so we went for it.”

The already established business was just the right size and fit, plus Fumi and Jess didn’t think their venture could survive on onigiri alone. They thought that the Annex HodgePodge’s sandwiches, roti, soups and salads would also draw people in. Their plan is to stick with the established menu, adapting and optimizing it while they make the space their own, operating as Abokichi.

The two took over in September of 2014 and Fumi says that owning the restaurant has been “110 per cent more” than she expected. “It’s crazy, it knocked me out.”

Their grilled sandwiches are named after local streets, including the Madison, which features grilled chicken, basil havarti, tomato and chipotle mayo; it’s a warm and delicious treat in their cozy shop on a cold night.

Fumi and Jess also produce okazu, a Japanese-inspired condiment that they make that is gaining a strong fan base in the city. Through their connections, they’ve tapped the community of the local farmers’ markets to stock Abokichi with the food and drink of their friends and colleagues, like Alchemy Pickle Company’s kombucha and carrots from Wheelbarrow Farm, a local organic farm.

Abokichi - grilled sandwiches, vegan roti, soups, salads, fresh juice, onigiri, freshly pressed juice, cookies, treats

Cater Local, Think Global (and Beyond)

Jess and Fumi have moved back to the neighbourhood since setting up shop in the former Annex HodgePodge and they’re spreading the gospel of local, organic versions of the dishes they’ve discovered internationally. They also cater corporate events and parties, like a recent one to celebrate the long life of the Mars Rover, for which they created red planet-themed food.

Another part of their burgeoning food empire is called HON’R SNACKS. Based on ― you guessed it ― the honour system, it’s a set of drawers filled with organic, local and healthier snacks for offices with a cash box to put money in. Not only is it a healthier alternative to automated vending machine fare, it builds trust and morale among colleagues and is much easier to afford and maintain than an office vending machine.

With an array of offerings that reflect the multicultural neighbourhood city around it, Abokichi is a small space and company doing very big things.

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