Food / Dining

Ozeki Sake reflects on four decades in Hollister

The Japan-based company talks about its beginnings, growth, and looks to the future.
Hollister-based Ozeki employees Javier Sandoval (center) and Jesse Lopez (right) have been with the company 39 and 40 years, respectively.
Hollister-based Ozeki employees Javier Sandoval (center) and Jesse Lopez (right) have been with the company 39 and 40 years, respectively.
Ozeki Sake USA Inc. produces roughly 1.5 million gallons of sake a year.
Ozeki Sake USA Inc. produces roughly 1.5 million gallons of sake a year.
Ogawa takes a moment to explain the process of producing sake.
Ogawa takes a moment to explain the process of producing sake.
At a recent Hollister City Council meeting, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez proclaimed May 21, 2020 as Ozeki Sake Day. Photo by John Chadwell.
At a recent Hollister City Council meeting, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez proclaimed May 21, 2020 as Ozeki Sake Day. Photo by John Chadwell.

Four decades ago, Japan-based company Ozeki Sake set up shop in Hollister and became the first sake brewer in the United States.

Though Ozeki Sake was already exporting its product to the United States, its management realized that the quality of the sake declined once it reached American consumers.

Seiichi Matsuda, a procurement assistant manager, explained that temperature is key to preserving the quality of sake. As a result, exporting the beverage was “not feasible.” Sake is considered best enjoyed right after being bottled. 

Wanting to ensure its American customers had the same high quality sake as Japan, Ozeki searched for locations to start a stateside branch. The company looked at Hollister after hearing about a potential business partner from the owner of soy sauce company Kikkoman. Realizing that Hollister was a good location for access to water and rice, two of sake’s key ingredients, Ozeki teamed up with a winery which acted as a short-term stockholder.

Today, the company uses rice grown north of Sacramento and produces about 1.5 million gallons of sake a year. Four managers on assignment from the parent company live in Hollister and lead around 40 employees at Ozeki’s location at 249 Hillcrest Road.

Asked what kept the business in Hollister over 40 years as opposed to moving to a new location, the managers were quick to praise their local employees.

“Once workers learn to make sake we want them to stay,” said Toru Ikemasu, president, secretary and treasurer of Ozeki Sake (USA) Inc.

“Local workers who stay are very important and very helpful,” said director and production manager Yoji Ogawa.

Four employees have been with the company for over 30 years, and two have been there since the beginning. 

Reflecting on his 40-year career with Ozeki Sake, Jesse Lopez of Hollister said it was the uniqueness of the job and the quality of the people that kept him on board.

“It’s been good through all the years,” Lopez said. “When I first came here it was something different to do.”

For Javier Sandoval of Hollister, the variety of work within the job still holds an appeal.

“You are always moving around and doing new work,” said Sandoval, who is in his 39th year with the company.

Another factor in the company’s decision to stay in Hollister is its connection to the city itself.

“We really appreciate how the city has has been there for us,” Ikemasu said.

That connection was noted at the Oct. 7 Hollister City Council meeting when Mayor Ignacio Velazquez made a proclamation declaring May 21, 2020 as Ozeki Sake Day. 

“Their company opened in Japan over 300 years ago,” Velazquez said. “To put that in perspective, that was about 21 years before our first president, George Washington, was even born.”

Velazquez spoke about the investment the company has made in Hollister and their employees to become “master sake makers.” He reflected on a recent tour of the facility.

“These are our local residents and I saw right away how much they care for our community, how proud they are of it,” he said. “I want you to know how proud we are of you and your company for all they do for our community.”

Ozeki Sake is celebrating 40 years in Hollister with a special edition bottle featuring the company’s and city’s logos.

“Ozeki and Hollister have grown together, which gave us the incentive to ask the city to put the logo on the bottle,” Ogawa said.

“We wanted to show our appreciation,” said Ikemasu.

What are the next steps for the company?

“We are planning on having an open house where people can taste the sake,” said Ogawa. According to Ogawa, this is set to take place next May 21 in honor of Ozeki Sake Day.

The company is also evaluating opening an on-site tasting room.

 

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Becky Bonner

Becky Bonner is a local teacher at San Benito High School who is passionate about sharing things to do in San Benito County.