Sunflower's Anniversary Reflections (2023)

Sunflower's Anniversary Reflections (2023)

Sunflower's opening day at its first pop-up on 30th & NE Killingsworth

One year. One year!! Time moves so, so quickly these days, so it's hard to believe, but Sunflower sake has been open at SE Washington for one year as of October 11th. As of October 20th, Sunflower has been open for business for two years. Crazy.

By my nature, I think first to what I haven't accomplished: a book, an updated website, a written record of my travels and findings, a second side to my A-frame sign, a bookshelf. Perhaps more importantly, a profit (the most elusive of all!)
But as I work on plans for Fuyu Fest 2024, and I know-- tickets were supposed to go on sale yesterday, but it's looking like early access will be 1-2 weeks out after all-- I'm forced to consider what I have accomplished. I also consider the challenges: moral, imaginary and bureaucratic, I've had to navigate on my way. So in honor of this little anniversary, lets look at the 3 highs and 3 lows of Sunflower Sake to date.

High 1: When Fuyu Fest 2023 sold out, after Katherine Chew-Hamilton wrote an article helping get the word out. Katherine, I owe you nothing less than my sanity and wasabi crackers for life.
I decided to make Fuyu Fest (a 200-person sake festival) a reality in mid-December 2022, about a month before it took place. During the busiest time of year, this leap of faith was incredibly stupid (oops) and I owe a lifelong debt of gratitude to an army of friends and supporters for (quite literally) carrying me to the end and making this festival a reality.
But really, the turning point psychologically-- what turned this from a LOW to a High, was when the tickets sold out. If you look at a sales graph, there's no question that I have Katherine to thank for this. Having essentially no budget for promotion (a good chunk of the profits were donated or used to pay volunteers) It was a low trickle for days and then BOOM!, her article saved the day. I remember how I felt when I saw it, when the ticket orders picked back up again, and I was so filled with gratitude and relief. In my heart of hearts, I had hoped Portland wanted a sake festival again but until that moment, I wasn't sure.

High 2: Kirinzan pairing dinner
Very recently, in late September, Sunflower collaborated with Heavenly Creatures on a sake & wine pairing dinner which featured the sake of Kirinzan Shuzo in Niigata and welcomed its 5th generation president, Saito-san.
As with Fuyu Fest, there is an emotional rollercoaster that takes place every time I push an event, kicking and screaming, into reality. The high of conceptualization, the certainty that lifts planning into the clouds, is rapidly weighed down by reality the moment you launch. With an Instagram audience of 1700 (then, 1600) you realize suddenly that you're asking 2% of your audience to drop $175 per person-- $350/couple (lets be real)-- on an unvetted moment you deeply believe in.
My tendency is to undercharge and overdeliver: to wit, I took no cut from the ticket and wished only to experience the evening, myself.
We had a few goals that night.
  • Make sure everyone has an exceptional time, and feels they got more than their money's worth (a hard ask, these days!)
  • Engage with the creative genius of Heavenly Creatures' team, hoping that some of their magic dust shakes off on me.
  • Explore and uncover the applications and flavors of sake. Push the book open, and write a few more pages.
  • Put Portland on the visiting producers' map. Except for the RNDC trade show, Portland is not on any producer's radar, and I think for all that we have to share creatively, that's an incredible oversight.
  • Eat a ridiculously good dinner with wonderful people who I love.
On all counts, despite tremendous anxiety, a great success.

High 3: WL: Sustainability
In general, Wednesday Lessons has been an unexpected success.
The premise: affordable biweekly sake tasting-classes, often on niche subjects, an hour of listening and drinking and staying awake. Sounds nice...but getting Portlanders into a classroom midweek is a real task sometimes.
Some WL have been astonishingly successful: Weird ones, Koshu, Heiwa Shuzo. Others have been quiet, despite being (I think) the most interesting or highest value: Daiginjo, Sake 101, BK, Omachi, Cup Sake. The first WL, November 2022, 4 out of 12 attendees were friends-- I was convinced no one would show up, so I begged friends to come. Every week, it's a ride and I have no idea what to expect.

Still others though, I'm proud of for different reasons. Koji, BK, producer highlights after my February trip, Taruzake... but especially, Rice, Sake, Future & Farming (WL: Sustainability). I put a lot of extra love into these.
For Sustainability though, I had 5 RSVP's. Five! Aaaaah! And only 44 likes on Instagram. I thought no one would show up and I'd be swallowing my pride., teaching five sweet people. it happened, on July 19th, one of the nicest days of the whole year, 23 of you came out. For the most important class of the year... yall came. Thank you. Some of my favorite people, very busy people, showed up. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

After my most recent trip, speaking with folks whose lives are totally committed to these principles, the turnout for this specific class gave confidence to my voice when I said, "Please come to Portland!"
We care about the same things you do-- so please, come visit us and let's learn from each other.

Ok- harder to write the lows for sure. But here are they are. Please skip if you are over the griping! A year on, with the support of many, I live to tell the tale so the downsides are just bumps in the road.
But if you're curious, or looking to open your own sake shop, I feel like the full story isn't told without them.

Low 1: June
This one can be quick. It's okay, it's simple, but I wasn't expecting it: folks aren't going to [indoor] bars in Portland in June.
Last year, as soon as it warmed up, sales were crazy low. At first, I took it personally: I thought I had failed somehow.
But...I got some good advice from good friends who have been doing this a lot longer than me. Will at Division Wines, Michael at Taborly, lots of other folks too. I asked everyone,
Everyone is out of town. As soon as it gets nice, we're gone.
And no one's visiting Portland in June. But if they are, they're visiting family and going to family joints.
No one's going out...except to the local haunt with outdoor picnic tables. Or grad dinner spots, beer gardens, pizza joints. That's cool! Me too. I don't want to sit in an air-conditioned shop in June either. I feel you.
Anyway, next year I'm gonna take some time off in June and go to Japan or whatever. If yall don't need sake in June, that's totally cool! But I'm outties then.

Low 2: WL: Brooklyn Kura
It's tough to point this specific WL out as a low point, because of how much effort-- emotional and time-- I put into it, and not only that, I demanded the effort and time of so many others too, including the head brewer, Brandon, at BK. With the help of friends, I devised a (totally hairbrained) bagel bite topping form, spent maybe 4 hours on photoshop refining the promotional materials, spent weeks planning the special BK order.
But... that Wednesday was the first warm, Sunny Spring day in Portland. And let me tell you, no one wastes a nice Spring day in Portland. 
I remember once, my coach told me that Portland was weird. It was the only town where clients would cancel their training session because it's a sunny day. Well...

 I wouldn't have been so disappointed if it were just me. These days, I don't mind if it's just me and one other person at a class, then you and I get to go 1:1 and that's awesome. But I felt that I was letting BK down, my friends down, with the small turnout. It was a big blow to my confidence.

Lesson learned... Doesn't matter how hard you try, how cool the event is, you can't pull a Portlander into the classroom on a warm Spring day. I get it. Never again!
Next time, school is cancelled for good weather! And I'm taking the day off too. Let's meet at the park together!

Low 3: That guy
Man, I'm not sure how to articulate this one gracefully. But it was such a HUGE part of my first year in business, and by far the worst part, so I can't do a top/bottom 3 without it. So just going to keep it simple and avoid naming names.
There's this person who runs a sake business. The number of times he's screwed over friends, colleagues, people I respect, myself-- the number of times he's outright insulted people, put his interests above others, left others in the lurch, demonstrated astonishing's crazy. Every few months, I hear a new story from another good person who is totally blindsided by this guy. If you've crossed his path, you know who I'm talking about.
Last Fall, I was on a crusade to stop this person. They were doing something completely illegal in broad daylight, with pallets of product-- made by good breweries, imported by good people-- hanging in the balance. He was willing to put all of them at risk just so that he could make a larger share of profit. By acting as retailer and wholesaler simultaneously, illegal in almost every state, he was earning ~50% profit instead of the usual 34%. If it all came crashing down, he could just back out of the arrangement and leave them hanging with unsold inventory: something he has done to other importers and distributors many times before.

Having been shut down by the OR State OLCC myself (for bureaucratic reasons) in the past, I thought they would happily jump on this obvious violation of the law. But no, apparently not. Perhaps when the violator is in a privileged class and the violation is cloaked (however poorly), things move more slowly. 

Four months of assembling and organizing proof, interviewing friends and others affected, following up with the investigator, finally in January he recommended action to his superiors. Then, the infamous Pappy incident occurred, and I think all other matters fell to the wayside at the OLCC.

This person is still in business, so I assume the OLCC never acted on the investigator's recommendation. In short, the person in question broke the law for months and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars illegally, with no consequence.
I've since given up; I don't have the time or energy to spend on this anymore.
But all year, I've found myself having this conversation over and over again with people left in his wake, which sucks. Warning friends who are considering going into business with him, hoping I don't get labeled as crazy or bitter.

So it's a big part of year 1 (2?), but I'm hoping it will be a smaller part of year 2 (3).


Ok, some really high highs and some really low lows this year. A ton of personal development. A ton of incredible conversations and wonderful people.
Every time I sit back and look at my shop, look at the ways the inventory has changed, my own understanding of sake, the doodads and details and the me that is infused in every tile, every cup... I feel so proud.

Sunflower isn't perfect, far far from it, but I think it's a really nice place to have a little sake and hang out a while. And I think that's a great accomplishment.

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