Onigilly is a fast-casual restaurant chain specializing in Japanese rice balls, called “onigiri.” Koji Kanematsu founded Onigilly in 2007, after noticing a lack of healthy, affordable food options in the United States. “In Japan, onigiri is everywhere,” says Koji. “I used to eat it every day because it is convenient, healthy, and affordable. Our mission is to spread healthy fast food nationwide and to improve people’s diet lifestyle,” he says.
In 2007, he put his commitment and passion in motion by applying for a food incubation program at La Cocina of San Francisco, which was established to support emigrant women and encourage their independence. La Cocina understood Koji’s vision, and despite being outside of their typical demographic, supported Onigilly, which became their first business run by a male owner in the entire program.
But when he wanted to purchase his own food cart, he could not find financing. Opportunity Fund saw Koji’s potential and provided a $10,000 loan to help him launch Onigilly. The food cart became a hit, and in 2012, Koji decided to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant with the help of a second loan from Opportunity Fund. The next year, he opened a second location and employed 20 people in both stores. Then, he won the SF Small Business of the Year Award. Onigilly has seen remarkable growth ever since.
The company currently has four locations in San Francisco’s Financial District and recently opened a fifth location in Palo Alto. Now Onigilly is the newest addition to the ICA Fund Good Jobs investment portfolio. The investment, a $300,000 convertible note, is the first underwritten by ICA Fund Good Jobs with capital sourced from JPMorgan Chase’s Entrepreneurs of Color Fund.
“It’s been inspiring to watch Onigilly’s journey unfold over the years,” says Sean Daniel Murphy, CEO of ICA Fund Good Jobs. “We first met Koji, his wife Aki, and the Onigilly team through our partnership with La Cocina. We have supported Onigilly through our Growth Strategies course led by Michael C. Bush, as well as well as through the Good Jobs Accelerator program led by Dianna Tremblay. Now, through the work of Investment Associate Rasheed Mitchell and key consultant Jonathan Mi, as well as the support of Investment Committee Chair, Jim Harris, we are proud to support Onigilly as investors.”
ICA Fund Good Jobs’ investment will allow the company to invest in machine operations and menu development before a Series A investment round and additional geographic expansion next year. According to Koji, the eventual goal is to open 500 Onigilly restaurants in the United States.
That kind of business growth means job growth as well. What started as a food cart is now a rapidly growing company with 35 employees. Koji has worked with ICA Fund Good Jobs for years to scale his business and create a good jobs plan for his employees. He also wants to create opportunities for employees to share in the wealth created by the growing business. “To grow, we need to spread a new food and food culture to our customers,” Koji says. “That is very challenging, so our team members are very important. A system for treating them well will be Onigilly’s strength.”
The commitment to taking care of Onigilly’s employees is part of what makes this an attractive investment for ICA Fund Good Jobs. “This is a powerful opportunity to support business growth, the creation of accessible jobs, and the potential to build wealth for Onigilly employees in San Francisco and across the country,” Murphy says.