If you speak to a chef in America, he or she probably owns a Japanese knife. But this notion was not so common back in the 1980s.
How did it happen?
It was the job of Saori Kawano who single-handedly educated American chefs and made premium Japanese knives available to them.
Kawano founded Korin in 1982 when she was 28, three years after the former middle school teacher arrived in New York.
Now she has 30,000 restaurant and hotel clients worldwide who purchase her knives as well as Japanese tableware and cookware. Fans of her products include numerous celebrity chefs like Jean Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud and Nobu Matsuhisa.
From her sunny, animated smile you would never imagine the countless hardships Kawano has gone through and the unwavering mindset she had acquired through them.
Here are her tips on overcoming never-ending challenges and living a good life regardless of how life treats you.
1. The Power Of Determination
Kawano came to New York as a newlywed with her high-school sweetheart in 1978. She had been dreaming about living here, inspired by her uncle who was a three-time Olympic wrestler. “He brought me many souvenirs from abroad and one of them was a table mat picturing the Manhattan skyline. I thought the city would give me unlimited opportunities.”
She started working as a waitress at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan to make a living. When she became eligible for getting a green card, Kawano contemplated her future options. “When I grew up, my mother always told me, ‘Forget about what you don’t know or you don’t like. Just focus on what you know and love.’ I knew the business of Japanese restaurants at that point and always loved Japanese traditions. I decided to start my own business to sell Japanese tableware to Japanese restaurants in America,” says Kawano.
Shortly after that, she saw the front page article in the New York Times
Luckily, a Japanese manager came out and Kawano told him about her new business plans. “Then he asked me, ‘Are you married? If your husband goes back to Japan, what are you going to do?’ I found his words insulting and got very upset,” says Kawano. “I told him, ‘if my husband goes back to Japan, I will get divorced and stay here to build a thriving business that will last at least for 50 years.” Impressed, the manager took her as a client with $300 in her new account. Later she found that the bank’s minimum account requirement was $ 8 million.
“It was the moment that my future vision was firmly established—I heard my voice saying I would succeed in my own business for a long time. I promised myself that I would make it happen regardless of any difficulties.”
2. Persistence Wins
Kawano spent her precious savings of $2,000 and imported some Japanese tableware to start the new business. With no connections or experience, the beginning was rocky, to say the least. She tried anything possible—she went to an AT&T office and got a copy of the national Yellow pages and highlighted every Japanese restaurant in every state and made cold calls. She also walked every street in Manhattan and visited Japanese and non-Japanese restaurants and shops to show her products. “Unlike now, Japanese food was not popular at all. No one was interested in my tableware and even Japanese people said my products were not durable for restaurants’ kitchens and prices were too high,” she says.
“But my mother used to tell me a rejection was not a denial of who I was. It was simply a business decision of who I spoke to. Keeping her words in mind, I would take a deep breath and brace for another rejection before I made a cold call,” Kawano laughs.
She came up with the idea of selling her products at a department store and called famous Bloomingdale’s. Hearing she had no buyer appointment, the operators hung up day after day but she kept calling for a month and a half. One day an operator said, “If you really want to talk to a buyer, I will connect you.”
Bloomingdale’s became her first client. Her persistence prevailed.
3. A Backup Plan Helps
Gradually, Kawano’s business started to grow and she had a baby girl named Mari at 35. But a year later, her marriage was broken and her husband disappeared. Around the same time, a severe recession hit the U.S. after the Gulf War. Her sales tanked to less than half and she had to push a stroller when she visited clients as she could not afford a babysitter. In order to survive, she had to get a bank loan to cover a $1.3 million debt, which took her seven years to pay off.
In the middle of the chaos, Kawano went to Japan to meet her supplier partner. He advised her to leave her daughter with her parents until the business stabilizes. “Knowing that would be a sensible choice, I could not say yes— just tears came out of my eyes and left his office in silence. If I left my daughter in Japan, I would miss the most important time for us as a mother and a daughter. I was afraid that we would be apart emotionally and spiritually for the rest of our lives.”
She kept Mari with her. “One day out of my strong guilt, I told Mari, ‘I am sorry, I am not spending enough time with you like your friends’ moms.’ Then she said, ‘Don’t stop working mom. We need money.’ I realized that this little girl was investing her love in me. I swore to myself that I would never waste her investment,” says Kawano.
On a Sunday afternoon, she went to a flea market in Manhattan to relax with Mari for a moment. Then she saw a man opening up the back of his van with clothing hanging inside. “I asked, ‘How much do you make a day?’ Surprisingly, he shared the numbers with me,” Kawano says. Even in the severe recession, he was making $500 a day, perhaps with the cost of goods around $250. Leasing the space in the market was $60. “If I sell my products at a flea market four days a week, I could make ends meet. Now I have a backup plan!” That sense of relief gave her energy.
“I need to feel that I had some sort of safety net to be able to sleep at night.”
4. We All Have A Sleeping Tiger Within Us
Around the same time, Kawano was walking around in Chinatown, pushing her stroller. “I was lost and exhausted, but suddenly a stack of cheap plates caught my eye. It was 95 cents a plate and a similar plate I was importing from Japan cost $8. My desperate brain sparked a wild new idea: make my own plates with a company in China.”
With no money or connections whatsoever, it took her a month of countless searching and calling to find a manufacturer who could work with her. Luckily, one of her existing clients lent her $20,000 to visit the factory and start production in Taiwan. That decision helped her to endure for the next five years.
“We all have a sleeping tiger within us that can give us miraculous power and strength. But until you are on the very edge, you don’t even know it exists in you,” says Kawano.
“Any problem carries a solution. Trust your sleeping tiger and keep looking for the solution.”
5. Life Never Stops Giving You Challenges
Kawano had a serendipitous breakthrough in 1991 when she met the yet-to-be-super-celebrity-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He was getting ready to open Vong, the Asian-inspired French restaurant and was looking for outstanding Japanese ceramics that fits the new restaurant’s theme. He stumbled upon Kawano’s products at a Japanese grocery store and visited Kawano’s warehouse. Vongerichten says, “Vong was my biggest step away from my comfort zone and she saved me. She never said no to my demanding requests and I thought, ‘I can do this with her.’ I found a Japanese soulmate in New York.”
Vongerichten unlocked the door to the world outside Japanese restaurants for Kawano and now 95% of her clients are non-Japanese.
The idea of selling Japanese knives also came from Vongerichten. “Japan has very sharp knives,” he said to Kawano. “Then I thought, ‘Every chef uses a knife. If I can attract chefs with Japanese knives, they may be interested in my Japanese tableware too.”
The strategy worked well and with the introduction of Japanese knives, Korin’s total sales quickly increased by 300%.
Kawano kept growing her business successfully and managed to get through not only the Gulf War but also the following 9/11 and the Lehman Shock. In 2019, she finally decided to slow down. “I thought I did enough to prove what I said to the bank manager in 1981—to run a successful business for a long time.”
While Kawano remained fully in charge of the business, she was comfortable delegating the majority of day-to-day tasks to her trusted staff. She signed up for a three-month cruise vacation to enjoy the well-deserved time off, only to find that COVID-19 hit the world in the middle of the voyage.
She managed to disembark in Japan and caught the last flight back to New York before air travel was suspended. “I had a harsh realization that a major crisis would keep coming back regularly regardless of how hard I had worked. God will never give me a break.”
Instead of pitying herself, Kawano now sees her life as full of opportunities for further self-development. “Just like going to the gym, things get easier as you practice more,” she smiles.
“Now I am ready for the next crisis because somehow, I know I can deal with anything that can happen,” she says. “I don’t know if I have become strong, but I have become fearless for sure.”
6. The Real Failure Is Avoiding Failure
With her vigor and laughter, Kawano does not seem to stop any time soon. But she already made her plans for the future.
“When I get close to the end of my life, I can live in a humble small house, read books, eat simple food and enjoy the view of the ocean from the house. I think it will be a wonderful way to conclude my life,” says Kawano.
“I don’t care if I lose all the money I have earned. What matters to me is the experiences I have gone through. Every moment of struggling and the following sense of achievement are the biggest assets of my life and they will stay inside me forever.”
What about Korin?
Kawano decided to let her daughter Mari succeed her business one day.
“We are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year and it’s time to think about Korin’s future. This business is not easy to run and I was not sure if my daughter should do it,” she says. “But Mari is willing to take it and I agreed because Korin will be her field of learning,” says Kawano.
“The real failure is avoiding failure and not experiencing your life fully. Challenges make you grow and gain confidence. What if Mari mismanages the company and Korin is gone? She will create something new and amazing out of her precious struggles.”