Selling Nostalgia
By Casey Halas


uring his first year at Illinois Tech, Yuta Katsuyama (M.Des.+M.B.A. ’21) was shocked to find that the food mecca of Chicago was missing the triangular-shaped Japanese food staple he’d enjoyed his whole life. Onigiri—handheld balls of soft, sticky rice stuffed with warm savory fillings, all wrapped in crunchy nori seaweed—was nowhere to be found.

Katsuyama’s deep nostalgia for the once-familiar tastes of onigiri from his home in Tokyo developed into an idea for an onigiri delivery business, operating primarily out of Katsuyama’s Chevy Volt. With help from his friend Cristina Tarriba (M.Des. ’20), onigiri made its first impression on Chicago with their startup, Onigiri Kororin, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tarriba—who at the time was experimenting with the idea of a potential salsa business—collaborated with Katsuyama based off of a trade. If Katsuyama helped with the paperwork for the salsa business, Tarriba would help him make and distribute his new product.

With the one-man-band now an unstoppable team of two, Katsuyama and Tarriba were able to solidify onigiri flavors, cook them all to order, and deliver the product to customers all across the city.

“We feel like we finally found the product that has the most sustainable potential.”
— Yuta Katsuyama

After one week of taking customers’ orders and having them pick up their onigiri in designated parking lots, word spread. They were soon featured in an article published by the Chicago Reader, prompting a huge uptick in sales.

Before enrolling in the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech, Katsuyama had been a management consultant working in the food industry in Japan. But he grew tired of giving advice to others.

“I wanted to make something by myself,” he says. His original plan was to distance himself from the food industry, but every time he worked on a design project, it was always food-related.

When Katsuyama began experimenting with onigiri and building a prototype of the business model in summer 2020, Tarriba was in the midst of post-graduation job hunting. She soon accepted an offer to work as a service designer at a financial company, and planned to start her new position after the onigiri business’s launch.

Onigiri Kororin operates out of The Hatchery, a food and beverage incubator in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.

But after Onigiri Kororin’s successful rollout, and the subsequent barrage of media attention, Katsuyama worked on convincing Tarriba to stay. She did.

“It feels more natural for me to be in an entrepreneurial role than in a corporate job,” says Tarriba, “and Yuta saw that before I saw it.”

Once the fall and winter months began to creep in, however, Katsuyama and Tarriba experienced a lull—or, “the trough of sorrow,” as they refer to it, based on Paul Graham’s graph, “The Startup Curve.” They knew it was time to adapt to a changing environment.

“We tried a lot of different things. And I think that capacity to pivot and keep going and figure out how to adjust the business model in order to have an actual business is part of the skill set we acquired when we were at school,” says Tarriba.

After a lot of prototyping and experimenting, the two entrepreneurs transformed Onigiri Kororin from primarily a shuttle service to a wholesale distributor for stores and markets all around Chicago.

“We feel like we finally found the product that has the most sustainable potential,” says Katsuyama.

Onigiri Kororin’s packaged grilled yuzu salmon onigiri

Nearly three years after their initial launch, the two have expanded their business, their operation, and their team—now totaling 10 employees—to new heights. After securing their private kitchen space in The Hatchery, a local nonprofit food and beverage incubator, they were able to hire interns (mostly former customers) and a custom, state-of-the-art onigiri machine that helped the team produce about 1,700 onigiri per hour.

Currently, Onigiri Kororin distributes to 36 stores across the Chicago area, in addition to serving at various outdoor events and music festivals, where Katsuyama has witnessed many customers come back for seconds.

“It’s rewarding to see someone get excited about our product, especially when it’s a customer who is either experiencing it for the first time, or has missed it for a long time,” says Katsuyama. “Our product can be nostalgic for some people.”

Looking back on the challenges that came with their surprising growth, Tarriba says, “We didn’t have a lot of the technical skills required for the food business, but I think what we were always able to do was just keep moving forward and figure it out along the way.”

“It’s been fun, but of course, we’ve struggled a lot,” adds Katsuyama. “But I’ve enjoyed struggling and figuring out how to make it happen.”●

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