In October 2002, San Francisco got its first vegan boutique,
Otsu, located in the Mission District. “Otsu” is a Japanese
word meaning strange, quaint and stylish. Co-owners Yvonne Chen and
Jeremy Crown have been vegan for over 13 years collectively, and have
been active in the art and music scene in the Bay Area for over a decade.
Otsu is dedicated to providing high-quality, fairly-made non-leather
items including shoes, belts, wallets, and bags. They also carry a selection
of comics, ‘zines, music, paper products, and handmade oddities.
Yvonne still works full time at a software company, while Jeremy devotes
all his energy to the store. Claudette Silver sat down with Yvonne and
Jeremy after closing one night to talk about the store and its mission.
What inspired you to open Otsu?
Yvonne: We have both been vegan for quite a while.
I used to buy shoes at Payless, and then Jeremy introduced me to Pangea,
and then to Vegan Essentials, so we would buy things online. But pretty
much every pair of shoes we bought would have to be returned to get
the right size. Then Jeremy got laid off from his Internet job, so we
started to do some research. We originally wanted to open a vegan café,
but then we came upon this idea.
So you were able to open the store in less than a year?
Jeremy: Actually, we started thinking about it in March
or April of last year, and started the business plan in May—then
opened in October. We had no clue that Moo Shoes had recently opened
in New York. When we found out, we were like, “Oh no, someone
beat us to this!” But, we didn’t want to do just a shoe
store, we wanted to do a boutique, so it was still a different idea.
Yvonne: Our whole idea was to be pretty low key, to
not turn people off with all kinds of slogans, and it’s worked.
Half the people who walk in here don’t even know what veganism
is about and aren’t vegetarian. Some people try on a pair of shoes
and are surprised it’s not leather. That is awesome, that is what
we are shooting for.
Tell me about some of the conversations you
have had with your customers.
Jeremy: I get a lot of people who aren’t aware
of the quality of vegan shoes and are impressed with the feel of them.
Mostly people ask, “Why are you doing this?” and “How
did you get involved?” But in San Francisco, a lot of people already
get it. They say, “Oh, you’re vegan, so everything is animal-free.”
I think that’s just part of being in the Bay Area. There’s
a big vegan community here. I have had a few people ask why anyone would
want to make something non-leather, and I tell them that a lot of leather
shoes are made in sweatshops. So that’s a big issue.
There are a lot of values behind the companies we buy from. No company
we buy from uses any animal products in any of their products. They
are not necessarily vegan-owned—sometimes it’s a coincidence;
like the Chrome messenger-style bags—they are from San Francisco
and a great company. We don’t buy from Vans or New Balance [which
sell other shoes made from leather]. We tried to make it a store policy,
that when you shop here you don’t have to make a compromise—everything
here is sweatshop-free and we don’t buy anything that supports
the leather industry.
How do you guarantee that? Do you limit the number of manufacturers
Yvonne: It is hard to verify, because with sweatshop
labor, we can’t go and check it out ourselves. We have to trust
the manufacturers. They tell us that they share our values and that
they do not make their products in sweatshops.
Jeremy: But it’s not about the rules, it’s
not about the purism. We are vegans, but it’s not all that defines
us as individuals. We are probably two of the strictest vegans I know
of, but for the store, we want to be more inclusive and don’t
think that creating more rules is a good thing. We try to be positive,
and say that we are just like everyone else: We wear normal shoes and
carry normal bags; we can look good too.
Yvonne: People associate veganism with crunchy granola,
hippie people, or with punker extremes. We are just normal people.
So do either of you have a background in retail? What did you
do to prepare to open the store?
Yvonne: Neither of us has a traditional retail background,
but I have organized shows and handled ticket money. I have also run
a record label and ‘zine called Zum for 12 years. But there has
been nothing to really prepare us for what we are doing.
Jeremy: Nolo books really helped. They publish great
do-it-yourself books on everything. I also managed customer support
for Yahoo for years and that has helped with managing the store. With
ordering, Yvonne is our buyer…
Yvonne: …which is just like shopping so you don’t
need that much experience! Obviously, I have a lot to learn. A good
buyer knows how much of each product to get, what to keep in stock and
what to let sell out.
How are you getting the word out about the store?
Jeremy: We get a lot of foot traffic, and there is
really good word-of-mouth through all the vegetarian restaurants in
the Bay Area.
Yvonne: Having been in the indie rock scene here for
the last decade, we definitely have a network of people who support
us. They are not necessarily vegetarian, but they tell people about
us—which is an advantage we have.
Are you thinking of doing mail order to reach a wider audience?
Jeremy: It’s a slow process, but we will be starting
around the first of February, but not with everything. A lot of what
we sell is handmade, local stuff, and we won’t be able to put
that online. We’ll sell bags and shoes…a lot of what is
already on the website. We’ll also do our comics and ‘zines.
Yvonne: But for us, the main focus is having the storefront.
We are hoping to have the online sales augment the in-store sales, but
people will still want to try stuff on.
I still work 40 hours a week at the software company, and getting everything
done is pretty daunting. I put in a couple hours a day, and Jeremy is
here full time. Sometimes I get home and just watch TV because I am
just wiped out.
What do you do to unwind?
Yvonne: Well we just got cable, so I watch Buffy, The
Simpsons, and Seinfeld re-runs are still really funny. Television is
entertaining; it’s fun. You have to enjoy life, too, even if you
are working on serious things. You have to relax. You’re not living
to the fullest if you don’t have the enjoyment aspect too.
What kind of advice would you give someone wanting to start
his/her own business?
Jeremy: Write a business plan!
Yvonne: And be prepared! We had to register as an importer/exporter
and we hadn’t thought about that. Because we order everything
online, it felt just like personal shopping. But then we got a letter
saying that they were holding seven boxes of shoes at JFK airport and
that we needed to deal with it. We definitely went into this not knowing
the hassles of importing! And the tariffs are insane! On top of shipping,
these shoes are not cheap.
Aren’t there any vegan shoe companies based in the U.S.?
Jeremy: Some of the flip-flops are made here—but
none of the leather alternative designs that are also sweatshop-free.
The demand is pretty high, and we would open [a shoe company] ourselves
but that really isn’t our goal.
So what are your hopes for the new year?
Yvonne: No war.
Jeremy: Yeah, no war—that’s a good thought.
Yvonne: For the store, obviously, we would just like
to grow the business. We want to carry more local, handmade items—there’s
a lot of crafty people in this town. The point is to try our best to
have most of everything so that when someone comes in, we have what
You can visit Otsu in San Francisco’s Mission District at
3253 16th Street (between Guerrero and Dolores), browse their online
store at www.otsuveganstyle.com,
or contact info@OtsuVeganStyle.com,
(415) 255-7900 or (866) HEY-OTSU (toll-free).