October 22, 2017

Prototype: A Lawyer With a Taste for Soy Sauce and a High Tolerance for Pain

Flummoxed by the discrepancy, he researched how soy sauce is made and learned that it is a fermented natural product, like beer, wine or cheese.

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The complexity of its production makes it prime for nuance, he said, but the soy sauces he had tasted up to then were consistently mundane — “analogous to something like ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ or Budweiser.”

He couldn’t understand why people didn’t expect more from sushi condiments. “If someone can pay 15 bucks for one piece of bluefin tuna, they can pay 15 bucks for a bottle of soy sauce that they’re going to put on every piece of fish,” he said he thought.

Soon, Mr. Blum was making trips to far-flung corners of Japan to sample the soy sauces produced by small family breweries with centuries-old traditions. With an interpreter in tow, he met with the owners to discuss their concoctions, and he snapped up small bottles of sauces to try out in sushi restaurants. In tasting more than 150 sauces, he found a wide range of colors, from white to inky black, and flavors that included coffee and chocolate.

Mr. Blum’s initial idea was to start his own brewery in the United States. But making soy sauce takes a long time; brewing a single batch can take two years. (Batch sizes vary depending on the size of the brewery.) So he decided to import artisanal sauces in the hopes of creating a market for them here. Eventually, he would like to start his own brewery.

When Mr. Blum was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his family made frequent trips to New York City sushi bars and to Mott Street in Chinatown, which he considers “a proto-foodie scene of the era,” he said. But the soy sauce he tasted back then was never on par with the food itself. He remembers red-capped bottles left out on the restaurants’ tables, filled with bitter, sour liquid emitting a “caustic” aroma.

Mr. Blum’s gusto for food led to a job at a French restaurant when he was in high school, and it has trickled into his legal career. His clients at the Cornerstone Law Group in San Francisco, where he practices business law, include restaurants and food producers. He is a principal of the firm.

When Mr. Blum decided to pursue Shiso as a side business, he continued to spend most of his time working at Cornerstone. It helped that the firm is not set up as a traditional partnership; it is made up of lawyers who work their own cases individually.

Photo
A plant where Jonathan Blum bottled his Shiso soy sauce, which costs $16 to $18 for a 3.4-ounce container. Credit Esme Watson

It gave him more freedom to develop Shiso, including the ability to make trips to Japan that lasted at least two weeks. And it provided a steady source of income, which meant he didn’t need to take on investors.

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Although Mr. Blum has spent the bulk of his legal career advising businesses, starting his own company was more complicated than he had expected.

He could not have anticipated Shiso Soy’s first major setback, which occurred a few years before the trip to the town dump. Just as he was completing the logistics and regulatory paperwork to import sauces from a Japanese brewery in the Fukushima prefecture, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck, followed by the worst nuclear meltdown since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Suddenly, his business was in jeopardy, but far worse, he wasn’t sure if the brewery and its owners had even survived.

“I was trying to call them up to see if they were still alive,” Mr. Blum said. “It was terrible. I’d become friends with those people.” They were indeed alive, but “nothing got exported from Japan after that,” he said.

He had to re-evaluate the future of Shiso Soy and decide whether to abandon it or find a new brewery and wait for trade with Japan to resume. He persevered.

“I believe in it,” he says. “I love it. I mean, you suck it up and double down.”

In addition to this passion for his product, Mr. Blum was extremely patient — a trait that benefits anyone trying to set off a new culinary movement, according to Lance Winters, the master distiller at the craft distillery St. George Spirits.

Mr. Winters sees parallels between the soy sauce and spirits industries. After World War II, both became “industrialized commodities instead of something where there’s passion and artistry really driving them,” Mr. Winters said. It took 20 years for consumers to develop a taste for craft gins and vodkas, he noted, because they had grown accustomed to limited options.

To educate St. George’s consumers to a different style of spirits, the company asked bartenders to help with marketing. Mr. Winters believes it will be equally important for Shiso to find “the right sushi chefs who will put this in front of their customers, and say, ‘This is different. This is better. This is what I recommend you use,’” he said.

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But that approach would probably require sushi restaurants to alter their business models. Currently, sushi eaters at restaurants dunk their fish in soy sauce that sits out on tables and is free, just like ketchup at a burger restaurant. The retail price of a gallon of Kikkoman soy sauce is $15; Shiso Soy Sauce is significantly more expensive at $16 and $18 for a 3.4-ounce bottle. For restaurants to carry Shiso sauces, they would probably need to charge for it.

So far, some of his food industry contacts have predicted that chefs might be resistant, Mr. Blum said. He is hiring someone to help market the sauces to chefs and restaurants. For now, he is focused on selling them online with the idea that consumers might take the sauces to sushi restaurants for their personal consumption.

Mr. Winters expects the artisanal soy sauce market to develop faster than craft spirits did, partly because the so-called maker movement is now so robust.

“People are making sausage at home,” Mr. Winters pointed out. “They’re making condiments of their own at home. People are fascinated by process.”

“Whereas before, if people saw a brand they didn’t recognize,” he said, “they would automatically steer away. Now they steer toward it.”

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/business/a-lawyer-with-a-taste-for-soy-sauce-and-a-high-tolerance-for-pain.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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