Japanese Grocery Asahi Imports Is Opening a Second Store in Austin
Sally Matsumae carries on her family’s legacy with a new location on South Lamar
By Meher Qazilbash
Photos by Holly Cowart
Sally Matsumae’s fondest childhood memories take place in the unconventional setting of a grocery store. Asahi Imports, the only Japanese market in Austin that sells exclusively Japanese products, was a paradise to young Sally. She stared at the mesmerizing wall of colorful candies and indulged in the large stock of Japanese confections. When the excitement of the store’s goodies finally left Sally exhausted, she would take naps on the plump sacks of rice.
Sally’s grandmother, Shigeko Burnie, first started the business in 1967 in North Loop as an immigrant from Japan who wanted to share the delicacies from her homeland with Austin. Later on Sally’s father took over and taught Sally the trade as she helped her family run the show after school every day. Once she graduated college she was working full time and eventually became the sole owner. Running the business herself came naturally, and now she is taking it to new heights.
Since 2003 Asahi has sat happily on Burnet, but due to high demand a second location will open on South Lamar this December. The expansion marks exciting times not just for the store itself, but for the Austinites in the area who don’t have any of these special products nearby.
Both locations feature a wide variety of Japanese pantry delights from 30 types of rice to 100 kinds of sake and beer, all different from what you’d find on your typical grocery run. The real treasure and specialty of Asahi Imports, however, is their fresh onigiri, or rice balls, and bento boxes that sell out daily. The Onigiri Counter is a more recent addition created by Sally, with all of the different recipes developed by Sally herself and handmade with love.
“I really enjoy making people happy,” Sally expresses. “To have shoppers come into our store and find fun, interesting and unique products, seeing customers excited about having visited us, and really just making someone’s day, gives me the drive to keep going.”
Those who are unfamiliar with Japanese foods and products, don’t be afraid. The employees will gladly walk through the store with you and help you navigate the over 30,000 products that fill the store. I experienced it firsthand.
“We like to think of Asahi as being a cultural ambassador from Japan,” says Sally. “When customers shop here, we like to not only help them find specific ingredients, we also love to educate them so that they understand how to use those different ingredients. We’re empowering our customers to feel confident when shopping at ethnic markets.”
Asahi comes from people. You feel that constantly when you go, with the food from family recipes, the employees and customers that have been a part of the shop for generations, and the jazz music that plays in the shop as a commemoration to Sally’s father who loved traditional jazz. Asahi Imports is bringing the wonders of the world right here to Austin with its own personal touch.
Asahi Imports newest location can be found at 3005 South Lamar Blvd. Follow @asahiimports for more information.