CHICAGO -- Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Yuta Katsuyama came to the United States as a graduate student in 2018 to study business and design at Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago's Southside. During that time he launched a food startup called Onigiri Kororin for a school project, which has now grown into a company producing products available at over 30 locations in Chicago.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm living a dream," said Katsuyama. "I always wanted to start my own business."
Located in The Hatchery, a food and beverage incubator and production facility in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, Onigiri Kororin produces and packages six varieties of a comfort food called onigiri, a Japanese favorite of Katsuyama. Onigiri are seaweed wrapped rice balls that are similar to sushi but are filled with cooked fish and other ingredients.
"It's really portable," said Cristina Tarriba, co-founder of Onigiri Kororin. "If you buy sushi from a supermarket or a grocery store you can't just stick it in your backpack but with onigiri, you can."
Like Katsuyama, Tarriba immigrated to the United States to attend graduate school but came from Mexico. The two partnered up to launch a wholesale version of the business after a successful, five-week run selling onigiri directly to customers by preorder on Instagram.
"To have the opportunity to come to the US and to build the business has been a really wonderful experience," said Tarriba. "Sometimes it feels a little bit surreal."
Hunger and nostalgia drove Katsuyama to come up with the idea of making onigiri, which is also called omusubi.
"During the school days I always missed onigiri," said Katsuyama. "I was surprised that sushi and ramen were really popular here, but I couldn't find onigiri."
The company's team of workers and a custom machine imported from Japan can produce over 1,400 packaged onigiri in an hour. The plastic wrapped, triangular shaped products are then distributed to over 30 stores and specialty markets in Chicago, including Joong Boo Market and Dom's Kitchen & Market.
"It's definitely a really exciting time for the business," said Tarriba. "We do see this becoming available nationally eventually."
The company is named after a Japanese fable called Omusubi Kororin, which teaches a lesson about honesty and generosity. Katsuyama and Tarriba both see the business as a way to share the delight of Japanese comfort food to the community and they say they're grateful for the support of Chicagoans in making Onigiri Kororin what it is today.
"It's definitely a team and people and community effort building the business," said Tarriba. "For us in our journey it's been crucial the people who have opened doors."
For more information on Onigiri Kororin, visit onigirikororin.com.