Step into many a mainstream grocery and you’ll find the deli tucked away in a corner, stocked with predictable lunch meats, a handful of cold salads and a few pieces of fried chicken for the rushed shopper to carry out in a paper bag.
At Umeke Market in Honolulu, the owners have turned their deli into the heart and soul of the operation—so much so that they almost hesitate to use the D-word anymore.
"For the last year or so, we have really tried to move more toward a café than a deli," says co-owner Michelle Yamaguchi. "I think people are really looking for more of an experience than just grabbing something to eat, and there is a huge demand for healthy, prepared foods."
Success in samples
Since opening Umeke Market in 2002 in the island community of Kahala, Michelle and her husband, Daryl Yamaguchi, along with his sister, Debbie Yamaguchi, have used their mutual love of locally grown food to create a unique shopping and dining experience in which, as Michelle puts it, "a good sample is worth 1,000 words."
Roughly 40 percent of customers at the Kahala location come for a prepared meal—lured by offerings such as the Loco-Moco, which consists of a grilled burger on rice topped with gravy and two eggs; free-range buffalo stir-fry and fresh fish with coconut-mango curry—and an inviting seating area that takes up nearly one-third of the store. After sitting down for a restaurant-caliber meal featuring healthy, local ingredients cooked by professionals, diners often can’t help but peruse the aisles for items to make their own dishes and information on classes to show them how.
"I’m all about educating people," says Michelle. "Half the time people don’t even know what kale is or why they should eat it, but once they’ve tasted it, you’ve got them. They want to know more."
What makes great deli?
When the Yamaguchis began offering prepared food in 2002, Michelle insisted on three things: The food had to be made with the same high-quality ingredients top-notch restaurants use, it had to be created by seasoned chefs and it had to be healthy.
The Umeke café started small, with offerings like buffalo burgers, Asian noodle dishes and smoothies. The chefs swapped not-so-healthy ingredients for nutritious alternatives (Bragg Liquid Aminos instead of soy sauce, kale and agave in lieu of sugary fruit in smoothies). Once celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski began to find their way to Umeke amid a dearth of healthy dining options in the area, the Yamaguchis realized they were onto something.
"It has given us the opportunity to create a dynamic identity different from the Whole Foods across the street," Daryl says. "We are conveying to the local island community that bigger isn’t always better."
The Yamaguchis have since expanded their menu and opened a downtown café-market that caters to the lunchtime business crowd. It features a freshly prepared hot table complete with quinoa and brown rice, fresh salmon and a tofu version of the local raw-fish delicacy, poke. And its cheerful green walls, natural light and local music have made it a favorite gathering place.
"You really have to interest the local market," says Michelle, who does regular healthy-cooking interviews on the local TV news.
How to catch up with customers?
"When they say listen to your customers, it’s no joke," says Michelle. When the couple realized the café’s downtown customers were more interested in prepared food than grocery shopping, they expanded the seating and cut back on SKUs. When they discovered their Kahala customers wanted more meat on the menu, Michelle overcame her mostly vegetarian bias and hired a chef known for his mean braised short ribs.
Not only are the Yamaguchis learning from their customers, they are helping educate them to be more in tune with natural-health solutions.
"Someone with a cold will come through the hot line and I’ll say, ‘You don’t sound very good. Are you interested in hearing about our supplements or our detox soup?’" Michelle says. "Or if someone is coming in for the first time, I’ll explain everything in the case and why it’s good for them."
She’s trained her staff to do the same—not just to benefit the business but to spread the word about healthy living as a whole.
"This whole industry is about storytelling," she says. "You make a believer out of someone, and they want to share that information."