Rice Works Onigiri

Rice Works Onigiri
A New Ancient Fast-Food Favorite
Owner: Kayo Takahata-Awad
Story & Photography: Chris McCloskey

Some products fill a void for consumers so naturally, people are surprised they haven’t been available forever. This is the case for onigiri--Japanese rice balls. Kayo Takahata-Awad has introduced several varieties of the ultimate Japanese fast food—grab-and-go servings of rice and seaweed mixed with delicious, all-natural ingredients. 

Nine years ago, while Kayo was running her own export business, she offered to share something from her Japanese culture with her son’s Montessori class. At first, she brought rice balls for snack time and birthdays, then she demonstrated making them. Because they were so popular, she started selling them to benefit school programs, creating what they now call the “Rice Ball Fundraiser.” Kayo invited other Japanese moms to join in, and they showed up with hundreds of rice balls, and always sold out, raising thousands of dollars.

At this point, the amazing popularity of onigiri made it clear to Kayo that she had the product, experience, and inspiration for a successful business, so in 2015, while working on her thesis in grad school she founded Rice Works. She rented a commercial kitchen part-time at odd hours and cooked, mixed, and wrapped rice balls throughout the night, then delivered them to coffee shops in Boulder before going home to grab a couple hours sleep and take her kids to school. Later, she rented a commercial kitchen full time, hired more staff, and expanded into more coffee shops. 

Rice Works had transformed from a cultural demonstration into a successful enterprise. The mission of the business is to provide Japanese whole food, the modern day version of a tradition that goes back 1200 years. This dish has always reflected ingredients popular at the time, and today Kayo has taken this to a new high—she offers a choice of organic rices with seaweed and  chicken, salmon, tuna, or barbecue pork, and seasonings. 

Along the way, as she sought answers for her business concerns, Kayo has turned to the business experts at the Small Business Development Center. They provided the tools for demographics research, considerations to streamline delivery, and a sounding board for daily concerns. She describes her SBDC counselor as experienced, realistic, resourceful, and funny. 

Kayo has nurtured the growth of a successful business while juggling a marriage and raising two boys. However, she knew her family understood her need to develop her company when she heard her sons announce, “Mom being away at work is a good thing!”

In the future, Kayo dreams about an outlet at the airport, a concession at the stadium, or her own automated machines dispensing rice balls in lunchrooms across the country serving simple, healthy, and fast Japanese food for everybody.