What began as Koji Sake Lounge is now one-year-old Nomikai, a “social food and drinkery” (after the Japanese for “drinking party”) that specializes in premium sake and Japanese whiskey. Its owners, Kathy and Tone, are married high school sweethearts (talk about connected) who emphasize the fact that their establishment exists beyond the purpose of providing food and drink for patrons: through it, they aim to provide a place for all members of the community to feel welcome, to gather, and to flourish.
Did you grow up being interested in restaurants or cooking?
Tone: Not really, we both had corporate jobs before this. We were interested in having a place where people can come and hang out. For us, we wanted a place where we could go out and feel comfortable at the same time, and have people come together. [At Nomikai], you can be anyone: you can be a college kid and come in and have a few beers, you can be a sophisticated businessman coming in for some whiskey. That’s what we wanted.
Kathy: We don’t really have culinary backgrounds, this was more about filling a void. I mean there wasn’t even a place where we could really go. It was always just a dive bar or a club or a sit-down restaurant. We were like, “How come there’s nothing in between?” We figured there were people out there who don’t fit into certain “scenes.” So when we had the idea for our place, we were like, “Okay, this has a nice casual atmosphere where anyone can come and feel welcome.”
What other factors have made your establishment successful?
Kathy: We have a good family, a good team. That’s one thing that separates us from other places in the area: our service is really personable. People will recognize you by your name when you come in. It’s not just about creating a drink and being like, you know, “Here you go,” and then setting off to the next customer. Everyone here is really open and friendly and will greet you with a warm smile. It’s the team that makes this place what it is.
Tone: Yeah, a bar is just a bar, a restaurant is just a restaurant, but service is what keeps people coming back.
Kathy: Well, when I had my first encounter with sake I knew it was something really, really unique. I always said to Tony, you know, “This stuff is really good and there’s not really a place we can go to access it around here.” That’s when we decided to open our own place.
Tone: Not a lot of people knew what sake was at first, but after time people would come in and say “Can I have the Namazake?” They’d order by the Japanese names. We serve tasting flights [where people can become familiar with a variety of different kinds]. We also do occasional tastings where the vendors come by and they’ll bring their line, they’ll let you taste some and they’ll educate you. People have expanded their knowledge of sake and we’re pretty proud of that.
How have you made a place for yourself in this city?
Kathy: We’ve spent most of our lives here, so we do have a love for the city. When we opened, there were two other businesses on this street. Now ever since, it’s been growing and we’re really excited to be a part of that.
Tone: We know this is a small mom-and-pop business, but we operate it as professionally as we can. We hold staff and service to the highest standards. We’re very connected with the local community, also.
Kathy: Yeah, staying connected with the community is definitely something we’re on top of. We hold community mixers, fundraisers, and things like that. We try to give back as much as we can. This past Thanksgiving and Christmas we did fundraisers for Give Thanks, Give Back, so for every pizza sold we donated another to Second Harvest. And we did a toy drive for Christmas. Nonprofits will come in and do little mixers and we try to help them out as much as we can. So, yeah, it’s all about community. We can’t exist without each other.
Any advice for restaurant entrepreneurs?
Kathy: It’s been the most rewarding thing to start something with an entrepreneurial spirit so young. It’s different with this generation, from a business standpoint. You have to think out of the box, you can’t just open your doors and expect to be successful. You have to adapt and be really creative. You need to have passion and drive, I mean, that’s something you can’t learn in the corporate world. That’s something that comes from within. If you have passion, great, we need more of that in this world.
48 S First St
San Jose, CA 95113
This article originally appeared in Issue 7.2 Connect.