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Celebrating success with catfish and cupcakes

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In the spirit of Kwanzaa, the weeklong celebration of black heritage that starts Saturday, this month’s Black Eye looks at two power couples of African descent who have focused their skills, talents and wherewithal on introducing the unique tastes of the West to Eastern palates. Having both launched their endeavors in 2015, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the success they have found thus far here in Japan.

The first couple are Sasha and Henry Seals, the founders and proprietors of Yumm Cupcakery, a home-based bakery in Chiba that delivers treats all over Japan. In addition to cupcakes, the company specializes in cakes and cookies.

The two of them met in Japan (he’s a 41-year-old American, she a 34-year-old Jamaican). Sasha came to Japan 10 years ago as an English teacher initially but that wasn’t for her so she bounced around a bit. She would work in recruitment and a number of other jobs before meeting Henry. Henry had been in Japan off and on since 1994 so he knew his way around. He’s fluent in Japanese and currently works in marketing for AIG. They fell in love, got married and gave birth to their first child back in 2010. They could afford for Sasha to be a stay-at-home mom, but she was raised differently.

“I tried to be a homemaker for a few months but it wasn’t for me,” says Sasha. “The way I was brought up, you go to school and get your education, and you go to work. I’ve been working since I was a teenager. I’ve always had summer jobs, winter jobs; even while I was in school I did volunteer work. I was always doing something.”

So in 2012, Sasha started using her time and creative energy to make cakes for friends and family. She’d found something that did more than keep her busy — it met a need in her to bring joy to people and to live a more fulfilling life. Primarily through word-of-mouth, her little labor of love was turning into a rapidly growing enterprise. It wasn’t long before the Seals put together a course of action and a business plan, culminating in the inception of Yumm Cupcakery in August this year. The company is currently experiencing tremendous success, including a contract with the Italian cafe franchise Segafredo.

“Every weekend we’re pretty much running on full capacity,” Sasha says.

The second kitchen they built in their home exclusively for Yumm Cupcakery has been put to good and constant use.

“Until we hire staff, we’re now turning down projects,” she says.

“My wife bakes things that just taste so damn good!” adds Henry, whose main contributions to the company are behind the scenes. “I help her in regards to the planning. I’m also an artistic person by nature so I help her with the designs, figuring out the costs of things and quality control.

“For example, one time we were booked to make some cupcakes for a friend’s birthday party. Sasha had made the cupcakes early so they were done a day before. But we hadn’t learned the proper preservation techniques yet. So an hour before we had to leave the house for the party I said, ‘Let me try one of these cupcakes’ and it was dry. I said, ‘Sweetie, you’re gonna hate me for saying this. I know we’ve only got an hour but you gotta make these over again.’ So she remade them. She hated me and we got divorced in our imaginary world, but since then she’s like, ‘Henry, you’re on quality control.’ “

Henry, in addition to his marketing career, making sure the Yumm Cupcakery products are up to snuff and his other tasks, is also one of the founders of Tokyo Black Professionals. TBP is an organization focused on enriching the lives of people of color in Japan by providing a platform to meet, network and socialize. It also serves to enrich Japan by introducing the Japanese and people of all backgrounds and races to the wealth of talent, diversity and humanity of the black community in Japan. And if that’s not enough, he is seriously considering running for city council in Chiba in the near future. And from the conversations I’ve had with him, I’d say it’s by no means out of his reach.

Sasha’s advice to folk thinking of getting into the food industry here in Japan is to just do it, “because you can! It may seem insurmountable but it’s not. Introduce your culture. Introduce your life. It’s not just about making food — it’s introducing parts of life that most people around you would never know otherwise. So just do it!”

David and Latonya Whitaker (36 and 40, respectively) are the owners and co-operators of Soul Food House @ 148, the only restaurant in Tokyo where you’re going to get authentic Southern cuisine. From catfish and barbecue ribs to macaroni and cheese and collard greens and corn bread, prepared by a couple of Southerners born and bred. The two of them met and married in the U.S. before coming to Japan as Christian missionaries. But their path since has led them to a different type of ministry — one of saving souls with savory food.

“I’m ordained,” says Latonya. “But I haven’t ministered in the last three years. I can do weddings and sometimes I’m called to minister. But recently our hearts have changed: It’s more about showing love through food. I just think people need to be loved right now and not have a message preached at them. Tokyo is a very lonely city, so when people come to Soul Food House they know they can get a genuine hug and great food, because that’s who we are, and that’s what we wanted to share here.”

For the past 10 years, David and Latonya have hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at their unusually large yet traditional Japanese home in Itabashi, Tokyo.

“When we started, about 70 people would attend,” says David. “The highest count was about 200! Our house is larger than this restaurant.”

“It looks like a—,” began Latonya.

Ryokan or an izakaya,” finished David. “So it’s burning hot in the summer—”

“And freezing in the winter,” says Latonya. “People fly from other countries to come to this event nonetheless because it’s home. We don’t charge anybody. It’s about being our friends, our students, friends of friends … and letting us show you what Thanksgiving is really about.

“The best part was seeing the shoes! The number of shoes—”

“They spill outside the door!” inserts David.

“And what’s so awesome is the neighbors don’t say a thing,” says Latonya. “They just want to be a part. Because we’ve become a part of the community. And we invite them to be a part of what we’re doing.”

“In the Wakagi area (of Itabashi) they know who we are,” says David. “At one point we were called the Wakagi Obamas!”

At the time, David, a professional musician, was working with groups like Dragon Ash, the Japanese rap/rock group, and writing and recording music for video games and anime. And Latonya was doing some English teaching and volunteer missionary work. But the success of the Thanksgiving dinners gave birth to other ideas, like cooking classes.

“Teaching the cooking classes helped me find the balance,” says Latonya. “Our food here is authentically American, but at the same time it works for the Japanese palate.”

The idea to open a spot of some sort was hatched about five years ago. Initially the plan was to open a music cafe, a place where the community that they’ve been building all these years, of Japanese and non-Japanese alike, could call their own. But the idea evolved over the years.

“It took five years because we’re both foreigners,” says Latonya. “A lot of the time people here don’t want to rent to two foreigners. And also it took time to raise the capital and the customer base we needed to do this.”

Eventually they found an arrangement that suited their needs, in the upmarket area of Azabu-Juban. At first they were worried that the local business association wouldn’t take kindly to a conspicuously foreign-run business in the area. With the seedy reputation of nearby Roppongi and the prospect of that kind of energy spreading to their small town, this trailblazing couple understood the community’s concerns. But apparently they’ve gotten the stamp of approval.

“There is a rule that you do not tarnish the brand of Azabu-Juban,” Latonya says. “Not the name, the brand! And we haven’t.”

David’s advice to those looking to have a go at opening a restaurant in Japan: “Be prepared for resistance and rejection. And you have to be unique as a person, as a personality, for people to be like, ‘I know that person!’ If you’re just another face, then you can disappear at any moment.”

Latonya adds: “And don’t be disappointed when all the people who say they’re gonna be there for you aren’t there for you. Most of the people who come in and support us, our clientele, we didn’t even know before. But the people that were like, ‘We’re gonna be there for you’? Hmph. Chirp chirp, chirp chirp chirp!”

“Don’t rely on your ‘friends’. They love you when they love you,” David says. “But very few will show up when they say they’re gonna show up.”

“Have a supportive community around you,” says Latonya. “People who are like-minded, who are going in the same direction. Earlier this year I was going through a difficult time and I picked up the phone and called Sasha. Now I knew Sasha, and I knew her husband Henry, but were we that close? No. She is such a real person that she doesn’t sugarcoat anything for you. She’ll just lay it out for you and listen to you.

“And now David and I have this couple, Sasha and Henry, that we can bounce ideas off of, and vice versa. You need to have those kind of people in your life. When I see Sasha and what she’s doing with Yumm Cupcakery, I’m not trying to be better than her. I’m like, ‘Girl, can I sell some of your cakes in my restaurant?’ I think that we should support each other and build a strong community.”

Congratulations to the Seals and the Whitakers. Happy holidays and a safe and prosperous new year to all!

Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Blair

    Finally, a community story on the community page! Thanks, Baye

  • Blair

    Finally, a community story on the community page! Thanks, Baye

  • Candy Rowe

    This just warms my heart. My NEED to share this articlewith my husband. I also LOVE LOVE LOVE the advices given too, esp “And don’t be disappointed when all the people who say they’re gonna be there for you aren’t there for youDon’t rely on your ‘friends’. Thanks Baye. We need more of these.

  • CLJF

    Happy to see this wonderful story about the journey of the Whitakers who are awesome people and, I should add, incredible singers!

  • Winter 冬

    Lovely article! I particularly like the advice they were giving and it’s great how they are supporting each other. I’d love to go to to the soul food place in Tokyo as there’s a soul food place in my area which I LOVE.

  • KenjiAd

    My wife and I run a restaurant business, so I know how hard this business really is.

    The two businesses described in this article are actually quite different.

    The cupcake business is actually a glorified hobby (really, no offense intended), as it is being run from their home kitchen, apparently with few or no employees. Because it has a low overhead (no need for rent, etc), I think it has a good chance to survive. The fact that Henry has a full-time job, also works for their advantage.

    The Southern American restaurant, on the other hand, is a real restaurant. It appears that both David and Latonya both are working full-time in their own restaurant. If so, they will burn out, because they are working 25 hrs a day, 8 days a week, with no day off.

    Sooner or later, they will need to hire employees, i.e., additional expenses. So their sale would have to be big enough to cover the rent, utilities, payroll, insurance, and so on.

    Will they have that level of revenue? I have some doubt. While their thanksgiving dishes may have been popular, but that’s because it was free. When people actually pay for food, their demand will be very different.

    Since they are new restaurateurs, they are probably learning a lot of things right now. Been there, done that.

    My advice to them, if they ever read this comment, is that they need to have a clear exit plan. While they need to be optimistic, it would be irresponsible for any business owners not to have an exit plan, or they would lose everything. My two cents.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    “this month’s Black Eye looks at two power couples of African descent”

    Er, where? One American couple, and one American-Jamaican couple. Where are the couples of “African descent”?

  • Aaron B.

    A great article about two wonderful couples making in in Japan. I have had the pleasure to try Sasha’s cupcakes and eat at Soul House @ 148. Both are truly treats to the tongue. I am honored to have known both couples and they have become lifelong friends.