When I’m on the South Side of town, my go to for a great cup of coffee, is KOKO.
Earlier this week, as chance would have it, I found myself at KOKO not once, but twice. On the first occasion (to meet with Dianna Sakai the co-founder/owner of KOKO), I’d had two earlier meetings at two other coffee shops. Needless to say I was buzzing on espresso!
In a town not lacking in great coffee (we rival Seattle and NYC in my opinion), I’d had my share of excellent beans that day, not least of which, the one’s I’d brewed at home upon waking.
When I arrived a little early at KOKO for my appointment with Dianna, I decided to try one of the house blends. A dark roast from Peru. Fair Trade, sustainably grown and sold out of Washington. KOKO purchases small amounts weekly to keep the coffee fresh and the customers happy.
It was delicious and I took it outside to enjoy the warm Autumn afternoon sun, as I waited for Dianna. All the outside tables, but one, were filled. I quickly claimed it.
The tables inside were all occupied with people eating and or sipping espresso drinks while on their notebooks and laptops – KOKO has WIFI – and classic Cafe Culture was clearly in effect. But there’s much more to KOKO than coffee alone and that’s the reason I was there. To discover the ins and outs of making a Cafe/Catered food outlet work in a highly unlikely location.
It’s been five years since KOKO opened in Martinez Plaza, just past Wal-Mart, the Storyteller Movie theater and U.S. Banks’s South Side branch. A virtual no-man’s land by the looks of the strip of Paseo between town and Ranchos. On both sides of the highway however, are large residential and commercial (office) developments, and clearly KOKO fills a badly needed niche in the area.
After Bravo and Western Sky Cafe closed, there was little left on that end of town in terms of good coffee paired with grab and go healthy (not fast), food. It’s no wonder then that a steady stream of customers came and went as I drank my coffee.
Dianna arrived promptly and after the usual (Taos style) introductions – “Oh I’ve met you!” “Yes, you look familiar.” – She sat down across from me to field my questions.
Dianna grew up in New Jersey but has travelled far and wide since her early years on the East Coast. She first came West because her brother lives in Colorado, and lived in Santa Fe before coming to Taos, where she met her husband and partner, Kenji Sakai. The couple have two children, a daughter, Catalina Sakai and son, Yoshi Sakai.
Although the couple first got their start (and became known in Taos), with the incredible Sushi they sold at Cid’s. Dianna’s background is in the Culinary Arts, while Kenji has a serious foundation in Fine Art, having studied art in Tokyo and in NYC, at the Art Students League.
“He is the one who has a great sense of aesthetic and design, with his art background,” Dianna told me as I complimented her on the beautiful flowers still blooming outside, and the great sense of design in the Cafe itself.
“While I am very much the conductor (here at KOKO), and most people will say it is my show, it has been and still is a joint/ collaborative effort with my husband Kenji.”
Dianna’s background in the Food and Service Industry is impressive; She early on apprenticed with a renowned chef/restauranteurs at a French restaurant in Princeton before heading West to Santa Fe where she worked for a time at the Coyote Cafe, during chef/owner Mark Miller’s heyday. She is also a Pastry Chef, having studied for a time in Paris, and once worked for the Dowager Duchess of Argyle in Scotland. An interesting life to say the least, not unlike most who find themselves suddenly here, in the Land of Enchantment.
“I have the food and restaurant background, having worked professionally in both the front and back of the house.” Says Dianna. “That combined with Kenji’s innate Japanese strive for efficiency often makes KOKO feel like a well oiled machine.”
In Taos, she and Kenji built their business slowly but surely, beginning with Sushi at Cid’s and gradually adding more food to go and the excellent baked goods (Cid’s continues to sell.) Coincidentally the couple’s son Yoshi was born as they started their business.
“Kenji was preparing a Sushi platter as I went into labour!” Dianna laughed.
“We began selling boxed sushi ( first in town) to Cid’s in May 1999, and we still sell several of our products there….. baked goods, mousse, and noodles.”
We’ve enjoyed working with Cid’s for so many years, and still do,” she said. “We love the store and all the workers there.”
KOKO opened in April 2013. The couple already had their (commercial) kitchen close by and decided it was time to expand and grow their business. They purposefully chose the location, knowing there was a dearth of what they had to offer in the area. Even though it led to some confusion early on – their Catering/take out name was Nu Garden, and Yew Garden (the Asian restaurant next door to KOKO) had a few locals thinking they were one and the same. Not so. KOKO is its own establishment.
After five years, KOKO has become a destination spot for visitors and locals alike, who appreciate its proximity to the Hospital (the day I met Dianna two inside tables were filled with Holy Cross staff), and it’s the perfect spot to grab a coffee and bit to eat to go, if you’re headed out-of-town.
The couple however are not taking anything for granted.
“Neither of us would have been able to achieve what we have so far without the other person.” Dianna told me, “and that goes for our staff as well….. I am grateful for the wonderful staff we have, we would never be able to do this without their dedication and hard work.”
“We have been blessed with our lead cook who has been with us for 12 years and we have several employees who have been with us for 3 or more years.” She continued. “It’s always been about team work and cooperation.”
The afternoon sun was weakening and there was a distinct chill in the air as our conversation came to an end. I looked at the plants as i got up and Dianna caught my worried gaze.
“Kenji took some home yesterday,” she said. “These will probably leave soon as well.”
I returned the following afternoon for a meeting and the plants were still there with no sign of frostbite. I ordered an espresso and sat inside while I waited for my friend. The Americano was perfect; Steaming hot and just what I needed as the afternoon began to wind down.