Rachelle Liu and Kathleen Chen
Jichan's Onigiri-ya: The Japanese-American Dream
From film to rice balls, co-founder of Jichan’s Onigiri-ya Joe Miyano shares his experience of taking a leap of faith to bring traditional and modern Japanese onigiri to Monterey Park.
Joe Miyano is a second generation Japanese American from Monterey Park who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. He didn’t plan for a career in the food industry, and instead studied film and electronic arts. After entering a career in movies, TV, and advertising, Joe felt like he was getting burned out while working in production advertising. He tells us, “I just kept thinking ‘Gosh, I’m working so hard, maybe it’s time for me to start working for myself.’”
Joe and his longtime friend Akira had discussed starting a business together. They made a strong team with Akira’s love for cooking and Joe’s entrepreneurial spirit, but it wasn’t until 2016, when Akira came back from Hawaii, that their dreams started to become a reality. Akira had tried this incredible onigiri in Honolulu, and everything started to click. Onigiri, while a staple food in Japan, was rarely made and sold freshly in the U.S.. Joe and Akira both grew up on the food, and realized that there was an opportunity to share this part of their culture with the people in Southern California. They launched into research and development and even traveled to Japan to do market research. They sampled onigiri in Tokyo and other cities, studying everything from mom and pop shops to Japanese conbinis, or convenience stores, where onigiri are often sold. They came back from the trip inspired, and Joe gained the push he needed to leave his job. “Although scary financially, I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to do it, I have to do it now.’”
They started Jichan’s Onigiri-ya in 2017 at the 626 Night Market with three flavors: salmon, onsen, and karaage onigiri. The salmon was a very traditional flavor, and the onsen, a soft boiled egg onigiri, was a product of their market research in Japan as it was the 2017 bestseller at 7-11. The karaage onigiri, made with Japanese fried chicken, was a result of Akira’s family recipe and ended up being the star of the show and their most popular offering. Jichan’s was a hit, and after a successful summer they thought, “Wow, we can really do this!” They went on to develop new items and attend different food festivals, all while looking for a space to open their store.
By chance, Joe found the perfect spot: a small shop in his hometown Monterey Park. While it wasn’t the most visible, it had a rare commodity: a pre-existing cooking hood. Perhaps more importantly, there was a huge community of Asian Americans and Japanese Americans in the area, and Jichan’s had the opportunity to bring people a taste of his home. In fact, the restaurant was founded in Joe and his partner Akira’s family and heritage. “Jichan” means grandfather in Japanese, and Joe tells us that he was inspired by his grandfather. He says, “My grandfather was a big influence on me growing up, I remember my grandpa instead of my grandma would be the one to make me onigiri when I went to visit them in the summer.” Naming their shop Jichan’s Onigiri-ya was Joe’s way of paying homage to his grandfather and sharing a taste of his culture and childhood with others.
At Jichan’s Onigiri-ya, everything is made to order. On top of freshness, Joe makes sure the ingredients are of the highest quality, using high quality rice and nori and making fresh rice multiple times throughout the day. While this ensures quality, Joe shares that it wasn’t easy getting started. They had high labor costs and the first year was especially rough in terms of marketing, gaining an audience, and getting their workflow up to speed. Then the pandemic hit, and they lost much of their lunchtime crowd as the people who used to work in nearby offices transitioned to working from home. While it was tough and a huge risk for Joe to “leave everything behind and dive into rice balls,” he says it’s worth it. He tells us, “A lot of people have positive comments or reviews about how they never got to taste such fresh or warm onigiri before. In Los Angeles there aren’t a lot of onigiri restaurants yet that serve warm, made to order onigiri whereas in Japan you see it everywhere, so it’s nice to see people respond to a food that Akira and I have both grown up on.”
Joe says that their food is especially nostalgic for the Japanese and Japanese American people in the community. It makes him happiest to hear them try the food and say “‘Hey yeah I remember my grandma making me these when I was a kid’ or ‘I haven’t tasted this since I’ve been in Japan!’ That makes us feel good too.”
Through Jichan’s, Joe shared with us his story of taking risks, connecting with the community, and honoring his family. Whether you grew up on onigiri or if this is your first time hearing about the Japanese rice balls, we’re sure you will forge a connection with the food at Jichan’s Onigiri-ya too. It is comforting, innovative, and an unforgettable taste of home.
Visit Jichan’s Onigiri-ya!
Location: 1975 Potrero Grande Dr A, Monterey Park, CA 91755
Phone: (626) 782-7754
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