Spotlight: Korin

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The Spotlight series is a feature for the OGs with photographs by Claudine Williams. 

Saori Kawano founded the Japanese tableware store Korin here in 1982, and in those four decades since has drawn chefs from across the country for her unique products and connections to the finest Japanese craftspeople. She also created The Gohan Society, won the James Beard “Angel Award” and collected countless distinctions for entrepreneurial leadership. 

How did you get started in this business?
From necessity. I was a schoolteacher 45 years ago in Japan and came here on July 10, 1978, as a newlywed to live here for one year. My husband was a contemporary composer and wanted to go to Julliard. We came here with a backpack, one Japanese English dictionary, a few t-shirts, a couple pairs of jeans, a huge tape recorder for learning English and some money that we got as a wedding gift.

I had to work, but what I could do? I didn’t speak English much so all I could was waitress at a Japanese restaurant. The owner was very nice and encouraged me to apply for a Green Card. Without thinking much, I said ok and within two months I had a work permit.

The first year was really fascinating, but little by little I got bored. I was thinking, is this my lifetime job? My mother always said don’t worry about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do. So when I finally had a week off, I wrote a list: what I have (youth), what I know (working in the restaurant), and what I want (I was always dreaming about going abroad to teach).

I always wanted to tell people about Japanese culture and tradition, but I forgot about that dream because life was so much harder than I imagined. I felt I was a small leaf floating in a huge body of water – I didn’t know so many things and didn’t know if I could make it here.

So much of what I loved was forgotten when I was so busy just surviving, but in that one week I wrote down everything and that gave me focus. I didn’t have the money to open a restaurant, but I love the dishes, so maybe I will do door-to-door sales and visit the Japanese restaurants and sell between lunch and dinner at the restaurant. So I did it.


Where did you get your love of tableware?
My mother was a working mother and I had a 6-years-younger brother. So one day when I was 11, I wanted to please my mom and I asked if I could cook for the family. She said she would give me the weekly allowance for the food, and said I could use whatever is left over for myself. I started buying kitchen utensils – interesting kitchen gadgets. By the time I was a high school age, I started collecting the most beautiful kitchen ware – I got a book that showed the most famous brands.

And over 40 years I kept learning and adding products, not just from Japan, but China and Denmark and Malaysia.

I always thought about what my mother taught me, and how she believed in me, not just as a child but even much later when I was here in New York.

Did you ever get to teach again?
One day when I was working at the restaurant, I saw a gentleman at the counter who came almost every day for lunch. I was very curious about what he was doing and why he was coming alone. He said he worked for the Board of Education and I asked him if I could have an experience in a New York City public school and he said yes. So once a week I went to a public elementary school on 125th Street and assisted in the classroom, and watched how the city schoolteachers worked. I continued with that for one and a half years. The kids were so lovely, and the teachers were so open – it was so different than the schools in Japan. It was like a 180-degree difference. It was an unforgettable experience.

I always thought I would go back to Japan, but after I was here three years, I really had to question that. And I realized nothing there interested me. I knew I didn’t want to go back.

When did you open this store? And why here?
I opened in 1982, back when Tribeca had a lot of warehouses and loading gates. I needed the loading gates to receive the goods. But at the same time I had to be in a convenient location. Tribeca wasn’t expensive. A friend had a store at 31-33 N. Moore and I rented a small corner on the 4th Floor. And then I took more and more space and finally took over the entire floor. It was a warehouse with no windows. Later, the owner sold the building and I had to move.

I found 57 Warren in 1995 in May. Until then I was wholesale only. At the start I went to every street and every avenue to find more places to sell. Back then there were not so many Japanese restaurants. And I needed more accounts. So I thought about how about retail? How about department stores? And I thought how about Bloomingdales? I was still working at the restaurant and there was a pay phone inside. After our family meal at 4 o’clock during my break, I would call Bloomingdale’s main number and ask to talk to the houseware buyer. I called every day for one and a half months and finally one of the operators knew my voice and said, “You really want to talk to the houseware buyer, don’t you?”

I made an appointment with a very nice American gentleman. I only had a few products in stock but I thought this is my only opportunity so I brought them all and laid them all out on his desk. His eyes dropped to one item. And I said this is a very big hit in Japan. All he asked is how much. And I said $3.75 for a set of three in a gift box. He asked if I had it in stock. Yes. Can you deliver? Yes. When? Anytime. The initial order was $1500.

He started buying from me very constantly. And I would make the deliveries in my Toyota Tercel in my black overalls and just hope that he didn’t see me dressed that way!

Thinking back, I was so young, but he gave me this opportunity and he believed in me. That’s one of my unforgettable memories, and I have many, but after 40 years, I am thinking about how I came to this point. It’s not just a business opportunity or the sales but it is the encouragement and the support.

What’s a good customer story?
It was January 1991 and the buzzer rang at my humble warehouse on N. Moore Street. No one ever came there! The building had an old handle-operated elevator and I had to go open the elevator to meet people to bring them upstairs. I go down and I see a very handsome young chef in a chef’s coat and a man in a Dolce & Gabbana suit – I knew it from the magazines. It was chef Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and his manager. I was 38, and he was 34. He was very handsome – his skin was like a boiled egg out of the shell. Both of them were very good looking.

He was opening Vong, the French Thai restaurant, and they went to a grocery store next to Bloomingdales and wanted Asian tableware and the store sent them to me. I took them through the one corner of the warehouse where I had made a showroom to show the most beautiful tableware. He ordered everything for the grand opening.

What are you known for?
Knives, but the knives were not my goal. The majority of my restaurant customers were Japanese, Chinese and Korean. I didn’t have any Western chefs or customers. Chef Jean Georges was the first one. He gave me that order, but he also gave me the idea to try to enter to the mainstream market. I never really imagined it — he showed me the possibility.

But I didn’t know how to approach them, so I thought of the knives. If they like Japanese knives, then they may like Korin and can introduce our main business. Knives are only 20 percent of our business because it is such a personal purchase – they are bought one by one. The rest of our business is 40 percent tableware, 15 percent kitchen equipment, and 15 percent disposables. [I buy all my party supplies there!]

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
It’s the relationships. At the beginning of their careers, CIA [Culinary Institute of America] students come here and when they graduate, they keep coming back and telling me about their careers and I love watching these young customers become successful. I feel like I am a part of their success. When they come to New York City they stop back. This is my joy.

I also like to introduce my home country’s culture to American customers. This is my privilege. Not just introducing but offering. I work with very small makers in Japan and it is their passion I can pass to my customers. That way I think this knife can be more personal, more special, more important.

The conversations we have with our customers about the product, about the craftsman, the maker, their passion – this is a package deal to our customers. When they get this package, every time the customer uses that knife or that object, they will remember this conversation. Their enjoyment will be so much more when they use it.

Your very favorite item right now?
I have a final limited-edition knife with the serial number 00 made by a blacksmith, Keijiro Doi, who passed away at 92 but he worked until he was 85. Years ago, I asked him to make a special limited edition of knives – just 20 – because I was worried that he was so old. We sold them all.


[Saori and her husband, Chiharu Sugai, divorced many years ago, but after the divorce, he worked for her as Korin’s master knife sharpener, going back to Japan three or four times a year to hone his skill. He died in 2018 but is still memorialized at the store.]

A couple weeks ago I was cleaning and found several very special knives hidden behind the knife sharpening cabinet. Chiharu had hidden all these treasures and didn’t tell anyone. He just hid them.

He was my first love and we had a daughter and then we divorced, but we changed the relationship and instead of a husband he became my best supporter and my best friend.

So I want to use this knife from Keijiro Doi for a very meaningful purpose. I am thinking of auctioning it and donating the money to a chef’s scholarship program that I started in 2005 [The Gohan Society] that sends American chefs to Japan to learn Japanese techniques.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot since you started. How have the changes affected your business?
It has changed so much. Before 9/11 I had to lock the door and put the black paper on the shop windows and I was so worried. But after 9/11 the area is so much safer and I see so many young families – so many babies, so many young people. It’s a really wonderful place to live in Manhattan – it’s very sophisticated and there are so many great restaurants but also so young.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
I cannot pick one. My regular places are Khe-Yo, Takahachi and Takahachi Bakery, and Odeon and Edward’s and recently Serafina and I love Locanda Verde and I love the new bakery on Church Street [Frenchette] and of course Nobu Downtown and the sushi restaurant called Shion [at 69 Leonard]. He opened four months ago, and the other one will be opening this month. I am also looking forward to Icca – the sushi chef and Italian chef are both Japanese.

For shopping, Issae Miyake, of course. I love Boomerang Toys, and the children’s store on Greenwich Street, Koh’s Kids. I loved her and she had very good taste. Chefs are young and they are having babies all the time so I shop there a lot!

Where did the name come from?
The name for the store is my name. I have done Japanese flower arranging since I was 11 and I got my license when I was 16. When you get the license, your teacher gives you one name that is a part of her name. Mine is Korin. When I thought about the company’s name I couldn’t use my name – I was too young and I didn’t have enough credibility. But I wanted it to be my name that no one knows.

What does the future hold?
I am really thinking back a lot nowadays, so I am trying to support my culinary industries who gave me this life opportunity and also the Japanese community. And I thought what did I do for this Tribeca Community? I would like to do something for the community here also. A few people have said to me your store has been here a long time but I thought this was not for me – I thought it was a restaurant supply company. So I want to make my place more welcoming to the community and more comfortable to just come in.

They don’t have to buy anything – I just want them to come by and browse around and bring us their rusted knife and maybe their old knife can be reborn.

After 40 years in the business, what’s your parting thought?
It was a long journey but thinking back it was really really great. Every time I think I about my past, so many people supported me and gave me very important lessons and encouraged me. So many times I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it. But now in a few months it will be my 40th anniversary year.

When I was starting there was a story in the Sunday New York Times about a big Japanese bank being the world’s largest bank, and I was proud of them. I wanted to open my business account at the world’s largest bank. It was a very innocent idea. They were at the 90th floor at 1 World Trade Center. It was a very fancy office and I went there on my lunch break as a waitress. I was 100 pounds and very skinny and looked even younger than my age. I didn’t know they were only a trading bank. And the receptionist led me to the very nice conference room and I could see the Statue of Liberty.

The banker asked me the purpose of the visit and asked me what kind of business and his questions went on and on. And then he asked me if I was married and he said, “If your husband asks you to go back to Japan what will you do?” I was so angry at his question that I said to him, “If my husband goes back I will stay here for 50 years.”

One week later he called me and said they would open an account for me. They had never had any local business accounts – they only served large Japanese corporations doing business in the US or Fortune 500 American companies. But he said that after the meeting, this was a good tester case to start supporting local companies.

I was their first local startup. He asked me how much is your capital? I didn’t have any money in my bank account, it was empty. Zero. So I knew next week on pay day I would get $300. So my initial deposit would be $300. Their minimum was $8 million.

Forty years later I am always thinking back on that conversation. And I know now that I will make it to 50 years. I said that and I committed. He gave me that opportunity and I could not give up. Until someone comes and closes the door, I won’t give up by myself.

Back then 50 years — I couldn’t even imagine. And now 40 years is done. Only 20 percent is left. So my energy and my motivation is very high right now.



  1. I love this story so much – thank you. I will surely check out this store

  2. same! incredible story

  3. This is a fantastic article! I always bring my knives to Korin for sharpening but it is so nice to learn the (incredible) story behind the shop. Features like this one help weave the fabric of our terrific little neighborhood community. Thank you so much for this!

  4. Such a lovely story!

  5. For years Korin has been my go-to for housewarming and birthday gifts for people who love beautiful housewares. They are always gracious and happy to help even though my purchases are generally on the small size. I’m so happy to hear the story behind this wonderful store.

  6. A beautiful story, about a beautiful person, who you end and operates a beautiful store. I have bought many items from Korin over the years from special knives to the small replacement blade for the Benriner Japanese mandolin. Thanks for another uplifting read (pB)

  7. Such a special and beautiful story. A real treasure.

  8. I love this story. My daughter is 11 and helps me by making dinner. I’m going to have to bring her over and buy her her own knife one day soon.

  9. Incredible story! The American Dream…..

    Gonna swing through next month!

  10. I’ve been coming to Korin since my husband and I moved to Chambers St in 2004. All my knives and many of my serving pieces are from Korin. The store has always been dear to me and now so happy to read we will have it for (at least) 10 more years! Thank you Tribeca Citizen for this lovely interview.

  11. What a beautiful and uplifting story! Korin sounds like a very courageous, independent and brilliant person!

  12. This is exactly what New York is all about. What an exhilarating read.

  13. This is an awesome store but I’m not, shall we say, the core demographic: I don’t cook very much, don’t work in the restaurant biz and don’t have any tattoos. But an old friend of mine is an incredible chef so I wanted to get him a special knife for his 50th birthday.

    Went to Korin and as long as I was there I thought: “might as well get one of these beautiful knives for home.” So I asked the salesperson “which of your knives are dishwasher safe?” Mistake one.

    Having gotten past that the salesperson took out a fantastic looking knife and I proceeded to run my finger along the blade. Mistake two. They keep band aids behind the counter, in case you’re wondering.

    Like I said, not the core demographic. But I still smile every time I walk by. It’s great having special places like this in the ‘hood.

  14. Chefs from my restaurants swore by the knives they purchased at Korin, and I’ve been taking my own knives there to be sharpened for years. Thank you for shining a bright light on a wonderful women entrepreneur who has given back so much to the culinary community. Long may she run!!

  15. Thank you for this wonderful story. I love Korin. I am always amazed by how reasonably priced the beautiful dinnerware is. I have gifted many people with these treasures. I use many of their kitchenware items for cooking.

  16. My first experience with KORIN was in 1997 when I first came to NYC. Ever since then I have bought professionally and my personal knives, equipment and china from KORIN and Saori San. Her and her employees knowledge is priceless.