by Kenji Hall

Editor’s note: More than a year after Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a tsunami, small local businesses are bouncing back, helped by low-interest loans and startup assistance provided through a $2 million grant from NVIDIA. This is one in a series of profiles of businesses benefiting from the program, dubbed Operation Kizuna, after the Japanese word for “bond of love and friendship.”

Kuriko Miura with green wakame seaweed cakes.
With help from NVIDIA, Kuriko
Miura, has 
found a way to thrive
in a post-tsunami Japan.

Balletic isn’t a term that’s often applied to a pâtissier. But in Kuriko Miura’s case, the description seems a good fit. In the kitchen where she whips up batches of Swiss roll cakes – cylindrical sponge cakes with a swirl of cream inside – she moves with the swift, graceful efficiency of someone who, despite her youth, has been at it for years.

Miura is the 28-year-old owner-chef of Pâtisserie Kuriko in Minamisanriku, a town on Japan’s northeastern coast. She started the business when she was just 20, after returning home from pastry school and a stint as a pâtissier-in-training at a hotel in nearby Sendai city. With her father’s permission, she took over an unused kitchen at the Japanese ryokan inn that her family owns.

Which of Pâtisserie Kuriko’s sweet treats appeals to you? Wakame (seaweed), chocolate, ogura (red bean paste), or mattcha (green tea)? Let us know in the comments section below. 

Initially she made delicately constructed cakes and tarts but switched to Swiss roll cakes when a customer suggested that they would be easier to take home as gifts. Over the past year, her cake-making operation has gone from a side business into a full-time dessert-making factory with a national following, now churning out up to 4,500 handmade cakes a month.

On a recent afternoon, Miura arranged for me to visit her kitchen as she and her crew prepared a batch of cakes. She wore a white button-down chef’s coat, black shorts that hung below her knees and pink Hello Kitty slippers with rhinestones. Her bulbous hat hid shoulder-length hair dyed the color of autumn leaves.

Tiny cakes, tiny kitchen

Miura’s kitchen isn’t big, and the limits on space meant she was in constant motion to avoid colliding with someone. As she smoothed batter on trays, smeared cream filling and rolled sponge cakes into tubes, five others darted around her, mixing the cream filling and batter, fielding phone calls from customers, and slicing and wrapping cakes.

Miura rarely spoke. At times the only sound came from the clanking of pans and the whomp of the oven and freezer doors shutting. “In the kitchen, I focus. I don’t think about anything but the cakes and what I can do to make them taste good,” she said later.

When the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami hit this tiny peninsula of forested hills and fishing ports on March 11, 2011, it destroyed homes, rice fields, hotels, bridges, fishing boats, and offshore seaweed and oyster farms. More than 1,000 of the area’s 15,300 residents were killed or remain unaccounted for.

Miura happened to be baking at the time. The quake disrupted power and water. Shortages of gasoline and food followed. As search-and-rescue teams arrived and survivors took refuge at an emergency shelter, Miura began doling out cakes by the dozens to hungry survivors. Within a couple of weeks she had depleted her stock. “We gave away around 1,000 cakes,” she said.

After the deluge, small businesses step in

After power and water were restored three months later and Miura returned to her kitchen, her first thought was to cater to locals. “Maple had been the most popular flavor so that’s what I made,” she said. Meanwhile, on weekends she sold cakes at the fukko-ichi, reconstruction pop-up markets organized to help small food producers and artisans in the area get back on their feet. The markets were a hit, and virtually overnight she went from making 30 cakes a day to 200.

Miura had to expand quickly to keep up. Suddenly there was too much to do for her and a childhood friend; they had been doing all of the baking, with help from a couple of part-timers. These days Miura employs nine women who work in rotating shifts seven days a week, and she has set up a separate unit to handle sales.

Extra bodies were just the start. The kitchen’s increased output was overwhelming the 10 waist-high, industrial-sized freezers she used at her parents’ inn. The solution: a large, walk-in freezer that holds 1,000 cakes and plenty of ice packs for shipping. Miura paid for it with a ¥2 million ($25,000) grant from NVIDIA (distributed through PlaNet Finance Japan and Kesennuma Shinkin Bank, a local lender). “The new freezer is indispensable,” she said. “We sell our cakes in more than 20 shops around the country and I want to keep adding more.”

Even as orders from around the country were pouring in, Miura kept thinking about the local community. They had been her most loyal customers. Many were still trying to get their lives in order and saw constant reminders of their altered surroundings: their 2-km swimming beach was off-limits due to sunken debris, the coastal Route 255 bore cracks or remained unpaved, and beachfront plots where hotels once stood were choked with weeds or flooded with seawater.

So Miura came up with a “disaster recovery” discount, creating a two-tiered pricing system in which locals got 30 percent off. “I wanted to make sure they could afford to buy the cakes,” she said.

Sweet, with a touch of seaweed

Miura’s offering of 16 flavors include wakame (seaweed), chocolate, ogura (red bean paste) and mattcha (green tea). She is constantly tinkering with the lineup, dreaming up new flavors and dropping less popular ones. I sampled a wakame cake, currently the most popular flavor. The dark flecks of seaweed  (harvested from her uncle’s offshore “farm”) in the cream swirl added a faint saltiness evoking the sea, which complemented the nuanced sweetness of the airy, moist sponge cake. The cake was delicious and well-balanced – high praise from someone who finds most desserts excessively and cloyingly sweet.

The idea for a wakame cake came to Miura in a moment of inspiration. Minamisanriku had been Japan’s top wakame-producing region and she wanted to help the struggling fisheries industry, a major source of local jobs. To create the desired mix of sweetness, saltiness and wakame flavor, “I made more than 50 different versions,” Miura said.

The disaster upended lives and forced many to adapt to drastic changes. For Miura, it has brought a deeper sense of responsibility and stronger ties to her community. “I hadn’t ever thought of this before but my goal now is to protect the new jobs that we’ve created,” Miura said. “To do that I have to continue broadening the appeal of our cakes.”