Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
Akiko Otsuka, Founder
Photography - HIRO
Interview - MINA
"COFU is my baby. I want to raise it big and make it great. Any business is hard work, but I don't want to make only myself happy. I want to make my staff earn more money, too. As my business grows, I want to create a virtuous cycle."
Akiko was a single mother when she immigrated to Canada in 2018 with her two daughters. Originally from Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, she learned jazz while working and went out at night to do side gigs, playing piano and singing. After moving to Tokyo and working for large companies such as Apple and Rakuten, Akiko decided to move abroad to expand her children's possibilities. She decided to move to Canada for its livability and safety. While studying makeup artistry, her long-time hobby, at New Image College in Vancouver for two years, she obtained a work permit by working at a Japanese restaurant. Her new life abroad seemed to be off to a good start, but then the Covid pandemic struck.
Akiko is good at turning a tough time into an opportunity. She decided to start her own business for independence and self-support, especially in the face of the pandemic.
"I have no experience as a chef, but I have always loved cooking. I am good at creating a business out of something new. I spent about a year developing a business plan that no one else was doing." COFU, specializing in pressed vegan sushi, was thus born in September 2021.
COFU is from the Japanese word "Kofu," which means "old-fashioned" or "classic" in direct English translation. Akiko deliberately spells it with "C" to fuse traditional food with the modern touch. Pressed sushi (oshizushi) originated as a preserved food and is known to be the origin of sushi. "When we first opened, we were often asked, "What is pressed sushi? In our second year of business, we have seen an increase in the number of customers who come from as far as Seattle and Toronto to check out our new generation of sushi, thanks in part to the SNS era."
For New Year's Day, they are planning a special COFU Osechi-style vegan meal (Japanese traditional New Year's dishes), available by reservation only. Vegans and non-vegans alike will surely be delighted by COFU's creative sushi. As VOICE talks to Akiko, she shared with us the secrets of her success and what truly makes COFU extra special.
VOICE(V): Why did you specialize in pressed sushi instead of nigiri sushi?
Akiko(A): There are over 600 sushi restaurants in Vancouver, and I wanted to do something different. After some research, I realized that the most traditional type of pressed sushi was not on the market. So, I came up with the idea of a restaurant specializing in pressed sushi, which would look as beautiful as a cake and please both vegans and non-vegans who are conscious about their health. Interestingly enough, the Covid pandemic has made more and more people resistant to sushi by hand. Pressed sushi uses a mold, and the pressing and cutting process is also by machine, so there is no direct hand contact. In a sense, pressed sushi is very clean and seems to go well with the current trend after the pandemic.
V: What makes COFU's pressed sushi unique?
A: Ordinary sushi is served with soy sauce, but we developed a vegan dipping sauce based on eight different vegetable sauces instead of soy sauce. It is not only healthier but also it is colorful and contains no additives. Since vegetables are the main ingredient, we try to use organic and local products as much as possible. I am not vegan, but I lived with my grandmother when I was a kid, and we used to eat many good vegetables. I also know what fish and meat taste like, so it is easier to recreate those tastes. I made and tasted the smoked konjac to imitate salmon and tuna numerous times. Half of our customers are vegans, and the other half are regular eaters. Sometimes they are surprised that this is vegan sushi.
V: Where did you get the inspiration for the menu?
A: The flavors are inspired by many Japanese dishes and Buddhist cuisine, widely known as macrobiotics in Western culture. The look inspiration comes from bakeries and cake shops in Vancouver. We use black rice to enhance the colour of the vegetables and make them look prettier and taste better.
V: What is the hardest part of starting a business?
A: Managing people and staffing. I am lucky to have a great team, and the four staff I have currently are all Japanese. I wanted to make sushi that anyone can make, even if there was no sushi chef, so I prepared the recipe manual book. With this manual, everyone can learn how to make sushi, and serve both the back and front of the restaurant after two weeks of training. Also, my secret weapon is my oldest daughter, Azumi, who is helping me while attending Douglas College! Another Japanese staff who is my right hand is Mai. We have worked in the same Japanese restaurant before, and she joined COFU to support me again.
V: What are your sustainability efforts?
A: I cut up vegetable scraps and add them to my vegan dipping sauces. This way, there is very little food waste in the kitchen. No to overcooking and over-preparation eliminates food waste. This way of thinking is also the root of Buddhist cuisine. Also, by opening the restaurant every day, not only is the food not damaged and not wasted, but we also ensure employment for our staff.
V: What is your favorite Japanese food?
A: I love vinegar! Japanese-style pickles, like Shibazuke(pickles with red shiso leaves) and Kaburazuke(turnip pickles). My grandmother used to make pickles, so I am fond of her taste.
V: Any new projects for COFU in 2023?
A: I've something to tell you.... A big vegan surprise is coming in the New Year that will blow peoples minds but I cannot release those details... yet. It is not sushi. I will say it's a favourite. Especially during the colder months. Stay tuned.
V: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business?
A: There are many I like to share, but my three pillars are:
1)Take action. By changing your action first, things will start to turn.
2) Find someone you can trust and be vulnerable. I was fortunate to be able to talk to my daughter about my feelings when things were tough.
3) Believe in yourself. When you are in the worst phase of your life, no one can help you except yourself. Believe that you can do it. You only live once, so go out there and win!
V: Finally, are you happy to have come to Vancouver?
A: I am happy! I am lucky! I got remarried to a Canadian this summer. I've known him since before I started my business, and he has been very supportive. I like Canada because they find aggressive women like me attractive. I feel I can finally be myself here.