By Julie Shapiro
TRIBECA — When Saori Kawano moved her Japanese knife and tableware showroom, called Korin, to Warren Street in 1995, she covered the windows in black paper and kept the door locked.
The neighborhood had few residents back then and Kawano felt it could be dangerous at night — she worried about what an enterprising criminal could do with the hundreds of knives she had in stock.
"I didn't want to show what was going on," Kawano said from her sunlit shop recently, as nannies pushed double strollers up the sidewalk. "I only wanted serious customers."
Kawano, 57, has witnessed lower Manhattan's dramatic transformation since then, and she has also been part of that growth herself.
She started Korin 30 years ago as a recent immigrant with no English, no business experience and just $2,000 she saved waiting tables at a Japanese restaurant. Today, Korin supplies knives to New York's top chefs, including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Michael Romano, and diners in high-end restaurants all over the world eat off of the shop's porcelain dishes.
Kawano said the key to her success has been an inventiveness that constantly led her to seek new markets, along with good old-fashioned persistence.
"I didn't want to overlap with anyone else, so I kept changing," Kawano said.
Her most recent addition is knife sharpening, which she began doing when she saw that American chefs (both professional and amateur) didn't know how to handle the slender, delicate Japanese blades, which must be wielded gently and maintained razor-sharp.
After years of shipping dull, nicked knives to Japan to be sharpened and repaired — a costly process that took about a month — Kawano realized it made more sense to provide the service herself. Knife master Chiharu Sugai now offers free semiweekly workshops in knife sharpening and will put the sting back in any blade for $15 to $45.
"Using a very sharp knife changes your life," Kawano said. "You understand the experience and the pleasure of it."
Sugai's workshop, filled with sharpening stones of many shapes and sizes, is surrounded by tall cases showing more than 450 types of knives. They range from a tiny curved 2-inch blade for peeling to a massive 22-inch sword designed to chop fresh tuna. Custom-made knives sell for up to $20,000.
The shop also offers other traditional Japanese kitchenware, including bamboo steamers and racks that straighten shrimp so they fit easily into sushi rolls. There are also bright displays of the elegant hand-painted Japanese chinaware that first gave Kawano the idea for the business.
Kawano grew up in a suburb of Tokyo and was fascinated by artistic tableware from the time she was a child. She scoured newspapers for sales and spent all her pocket money on beautiful dishes, which she saw as a defense against unhappiness.
Kawano moved to New York in 1978 and began working as a waitress, soon deciding that she wanted to stay in America permanently.
But Kawano had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, so over her Christmas break in 1981, when she was 28 years old, she made a list of her faults and assets. The list of her positive qualities was short and vague — she was young and healthy and she loved chinaware — while the list of negatives was intimidatingly long: She knew very little English and had no American higher education, no connections in New York and no money.
Kawano put the list of negatives aside and never looked at it again.
She began ordering tableware from a family friend in Japan and selling it to the city's Japanese restaurants on her breaks from work. The money multiplied, and soon she was able to hire a salesman and move into a small warehouse above a smelly dried-fish importer on North Moore Street.
One day, the buzzer rang and Kawano opened the door to find a man she remembers as a "very good-looking chef" who turned out to be Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He momentarily left her breathless when he said he wanted to use her tableware at his new Thai-French fusion restaurant, Vong.
This early-'90s moment was an eye-opener for Kawano, who realized she could tap into the enormous market of New York's non-Japanese, high-end restaurants.
"Anything you cannot imagine, you cannot do," Kawano said.
Around the same time, she also began offering Japanese knives as a way of diversifying the business, and they quickly grew popular among both chefs and amateur cooks.
Kawano expanded to the larger Warren Street space in 1995 but still considered herself a local wholesaler, with a successful but moderate business.
Then 9/11 struck. Korin was in the frozen zone and Kawano couldn't return to the shop for weeks. The trauma of the day and the uncertainty that followed made her take a step back and think about the direction of the business — along with the direction of her life.
Kawano decided to become an American citizen, as a commitment to the country that had become her home, and she decided to aggressively grow her business, as a way of seizing the moment and ensuring she had no regrets.
"9/11 changed my life," Kawano said. "You never know what will happen this afternoon or tomorrow. It changed my way of thinking."
Kawano bought a Zagat guide and used it as a mailing list to solicit new restaurant clients around the country. She joined 26 hospitality and industry associations and applied for government certification as a minority and woman-owned business.
Then, Kawano sent a sales pitch to more than 100 major corporations. She was soon providing tableware for the private cafeterias and boardrooms of Cisco and IBM, along with supplying national caterers like Aramark.
Kawano also built up her online business, and, as lower Manhattan grew safer following 9/11, she opened the doors of her previously private showroom to serve walk-in residents and tourists from all over the world.
But Kawano still felt like something was missing, so in 2006 she launched her own nonprofit, called the Gohan Society, which builds bridges between the restaurant industry in America and Japan. She has received many awards for her business savvy and community-minded efforts.
Kawano has ramped up her activism since last month's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, raising money for relief efforts by donating all proceeds from the knife-sharpening services.
The situation in Japan is still daunting for Kawano's business, as the factories and suppliers are hampered by shortages of raw materials, fuel and electricity. But Kawano relishes challenges.
"All the ideas are always coming from necessity," Kawano said with a smile. "Until I really come to the edge…until then, I can't come up with a new idea."