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The irrepressible entrepreneurship of KOJO founder, sake maker and now sauce producer Tatsuo Kan

Every now and then you run into a human Energizer Bunny. Someone who's never satisfied where they are. Someone who gets a bigger thrill from striving toward their goals than achieving them.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Tatsuo Kan

Penticton's Tatsuo Kan is precisely that.

A sushi chef by trade without ever having completed any formal training, Kan nevertheless ran a catering company in Tokyo for eight years before moving his family to Vancouver in 2014, where for two years he guided the owners of a quartet of Japanese restaurants on hoity-toity Robson Street.

Two years later Kan and family were on the road again. This time they ended up in Summerland, where Kan sized up the Penticton sushi scene and believed he could do better.

On Valentine's Day of 2017 he founded KOJO, a sushi eatery on Skaha Lake Road that instantly attracted a rabid fan base. By 2019, he'd opened a second KOJO in West Kelowna, then in mid-2021 another sushi spot, KOYA, in North Penticton.

He was on a roll. A sushi roll. And the customer reviews were through the roof.

But it wasn't enough.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

While prepping to open KOYA in 2021, Kan was alerted to a situation that would ultimately launch him on another journey equally as grand as the one he'd just completed.

Only this journey would add manufacturing to his portfolio. Small-scale manufacturing – first of the Japanese rice wine called sake, then of bottled cooking/dipping sauces made from soy sauce.

Indeed, within two years he'd release five distinct varieties of sake, all tuned to North American taste buds. And in March of 2024, he'll debut a half-dozen sauces too. Then another four or more in the next year after that.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

The guy just doesn’t stop. And he makes all of it right here in Penticton in a facility adjacent to the original KOJO.

To think that this latest chapter all began when KOJO's fermented rice supplier in Richmond didn’t renew his lease.

"So the guy in charge of the shop where we make sauces for our restaurants," said Kan, "came to me and said we can't buy koji (fermented rice) from the factory brewery in Richmond anymore. They didn’t renew their lease.

"So I thought we were in trouble. We’ve been buying their koji since day one. It’s so good and so fresh. We use it in so many ways in our restaurants."

Soon, Kan reached out to the supplier, a fellow named Yoshi Kasugai. Kasugai is an expert koji maker, and he used most of it to create sake. Koji is, after all, sake's main ingredient.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Yoshi Kasugai in the fermentation room

But Kasugai's recent years had been challenging. Not only did he ferment the rice, he made the sake, he sold the sake and he delivered the sake. And he didn't even have a car. He'd often ride the bus, deliveries in hand.

But Kan knew Kasugai from an earlier time in his life. And he suggested they get together.

Just two weeks later, Kasugai arrived in Penticton. And Kan was thrilled. He wanted Kasugai's top-level koji not only for his teriyaki sauce, but his miso and his soy sauce and other applications too. And he was willing to employ him directly to get it.

Soon, Kasugai was showing Kan his distinctly old-school fermentation methods. Rather than using machinery, Kasugai would wrap the product in a "shiki-nuno cloth" and let it ferment slowly and naturally over the course of months.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

The process was four centuries old. And Kan was convinced it was the reason Kasugai's koji was so awesome.

There was, however, a catch. Kasugai stipulated he'd come to Penticton only if the two would make sake together.

"I don't even drink sake," laughed Kan. "I didn’t really even like sake. But I had no choice. I had to make sake. His fermented rice was too good to say no."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

But if Kan was going to make sake, at least he wanted some input into the final product. His idea was to produce a new take on the traditional style, one that would calm sake's harshness and make it friendlier for Canadians and those new to the drink.

Kasugai agreed and the two were off to the races.

Today, there are five all-natural varieties of sake under Kan's "Kizuna" name, all launched in 2023.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

One is sparkling. One, says Kan, is rich in flavor, like a "good scotch." Another is super smooth.

"It was just unbelievable," said a smiling Kan. "Even me, who's not a fan of sake, I drank so much of it."

It's even won awards. The Kizuna "Junmai" Sake took a silver medal at the 2023 Sélections Mondiales Des Vins Canada and a bronze at the 2023 Los Angeles International Competitions. The Kizuna Nigori Sake won a bronze and a gold for "Package Design" at the latter.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

But, he added, even two years after its introduction, Kizuna sake continues to battle preconceived notions about sake's taste.

"So now we're focused on educating people," he said. "We're doing cooking classes at people's houses where we pair our sakes with food. It's $100 per person and we need ten people per group. We bring the ingredients, we bring the sake. It's fun."

The story might have ended there, but Kan is Kan and that means the three restaurants – two since he sold KOYA in March 2023 – the growing sake empire and the at-home cooking classes weren’t enough. So he started down another road.

That road was sauces.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"When Yoshi came to Penticton," he said, "we realized the licence to make sake was going to take us a year. So I had to find him something else to do."

It didn’t take long. Kasugai had brought Kan a gift when he'd arrived – samples of soy sauce and miso he'd created in Richmond.

Kan was stunned. He loved the taste. What's more, Kasugai had created them using the exact same time-tested fermentation process he uses to make koji. Only instead of rice, he used soy beans.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"He told me several big soy sauce producers press out the fat from the soy bean and sell it separately," said Kan. "But if you don’t press out the fat, it tastes much better. I was shocked. I'm Japanese and even I didn’t know.

"So when he told me it was the same method of fermentation as making sake, I said do it."

And that’s what Kasugai did. Over the next year, they made a whopping 2,000 litres of soy sauce.

One problem, and it was a biggie. It proved to be too "traditional," and therefore too salty for local taste buds.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Kan in 2021

So Kan added boiled sake, which reduced the saltiness and improved the taste. But sake is expensive. So he tried vinegar. It worked just as well and was way cheaper.

They handed out samples at their restaurants. And according to Kan, the feedback was stellar.

"Everyone liked it," he said. "Customers were asking when they could get it and if we could ship it.

"And they started asking about other sauces too. What about poke sauce? What about teriyaki sauce? What about the sauces we'd used at our restaurant for years?

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"I knew then that this would be a great business. I felt it had more potential than sake."

Kan dove into the world of flavored soy sauces. It seemed so well set up for him. Soy sauce, it seems, is the base for many other sauces. And the better the quality of the soy and the fermentation, the better the quality of the end product. And he had that part covered.

As for the ingredients and spices that finish off a sauce, he felt confident there too.

"I ran a catering company for many years," said Kan. "We served a lot of different cuisines, not just Japanese. And I worked with many chefs, and sometimes restaurant owners too. I've gotten so many ideas from them for tastes."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

But there was another holdup. It's one that continues today.

"The health inspector has asked us to prove that the soy sauce is safe to sell to the public," said Kan. "They're not familiar with our fermentation process and are asking us for paperwork to prove it's safe.

"So right now while we’re working on that, we can't sell it to the public, either on its own or as the base for other sauces. But we can use it at our restaurants. Hopefully the situation will be solved soon."

In the meantime, Kan sourced a high-quality gluten-free soy sauce from a reputable manufacturer and substituted it in the recipes to create a lineup of six cooking/dipping sauces, again under the "Kizuna" name – BBQ, Poke, Sesame, Teriyaki, Spicy Mayo and Chili.

And just the day before this story went live, he got official approval to sell four of them. Kan expects the four will appear in short order at local independent grocery stores, coffee shops and at the Penticton and West Kelowna KOJOs. The other two, he believes, won't be far behind.

For future batches, though, he hopes to ditch the corporate soy and return to the stuff his friend Kasugai has taken such pains to create.

"All our sauces are designed for people who are too tired to cook," he said. "They're looking for a complete seasoning in a bottle that tastes good and is healthy. And they’re all gluten-free and, with the exception of the mayonnaise, plant-based."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

For more info on Kizuna sauces, head to the website here.

For more info on Kizuna sakes, available locally at shops such as JAK's Beer Wine Spirits, hit up the Kizuna Sake website here.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

As for Tatsuo Kan and Yoshi Kasugai? Well, they're best buddies of course.

"He made the soy sauce that gave me the inspiration to open my new business," said Kan. "He opened up my opportunities. He’ll be my guy the whole way. He's an artist."

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