A typical morning for Hiro Saito, founder of Redondo Beach–based gluten-free café Kirari West Bake Shop and brand new cookie outpost Confections by Kirari West, used to begin well before sunrise. “I would wake up a 4 a.m. and be baking all morning,” says the Japanese-born confectioner who once slept upstairs in the office to keep up with his new business seven years ago. “Now that we have strong employees and a talented team, I was able to stop focusing on baking and began to look towards the entrepreneurial side of my business and expanding. I’m still in the habit of waking up at 4 a.m., but now when I go into the store, it’s to make sure everything is working well in terms of quality of products and service.”
Hiro’s journey into the cafè and restaurant business began when he moved to the United States from Japan after high school in 1996. “I loved American movies, and I thought everything about America was really cool, and it was always my dream to come here,” explains Hiro, who initially moved to Delaware for a year and enrolled in classes at Wesley College (now Delaware State University.) “I have always been interested in food. The inspiration to create an all gluten-free bakery and café came to me from more of an entrepreneur standpoint than a strong desire to cook or bake. Thankfully, I have always had good culinary instincts and so I fell easily into the groove of a baker’s life.”
After living in Delaware for a year, Hiro moved to New York City for seven years where he worked as a server in various Japanese restaurants. In 2005, he moved to Los Angeles and landed a job that would change the course of his life as a manager at Hugo’s Restaurant in Studio City. There, he learned the ropes of the restaurant industry as well as a full immersion into the world of gluten-free menu options. “At the time, Hugo’s was one of the first restaurants that was serving gluten-free dishes,” he adds. “I had never heard of it, but the chefs had so much passion, and all of those customers that couldn’t eat gluten be so happy, and all of those things inspired me.”
But it wasn’t just his love of business ownership and entrepreneurship from his father’s influence that sparked the concept for Kirari West with menu offerings such as almond brioche and panini bread, blueberry scones and white chocolate strawberry shortcake. It was also large in part due to the Tōhuku earthquake and tsunami near his hometown in Fukushima in 2011. Not only was he left wondering if his family had survived, but he shifted his entire life focus. After grueling days of initially not being able to reach his family and relatives, he realized long lapses in calls home and his connection needed to change. He decided to change course and open a gluten-free concept as a western extension of his father and older brother’s existing gluten-free bakery, Kirari, using rice flour, in Japan. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur like my dad,” recalls Hiro, of his father who also owned a kimono shop. “When I told him I wanted to join, he was excited for me to be a part of his business.” Shortly after, Hiro dove right in and underwent a two-week intensive tutorial with a professional pastry chef in Japan and studied countless Youtube videos.
In June, he opened his second outpost, Confections by Kirari West, in the King Harbor Shopping Center (the same shopping center as Kirari West.) The new space, designed by Hiro, features white subway tile, rose gold modern chairs and hanging light fixtures found on Etsy and Wayfair, and a custom mural depicting a nostalgic hot air balloon by artist Anna Sibel. “We chose cookies for the new store for a few reasons,” explains Hiro. “Cookies have so much potential. They are closely related to American culture and traditions, so most everyone loves cookies. Our saying ‘love of cookies never goes out of style’ is meant to capture that sentiment.”
He also wanted to be able to share his creations around the country and internationally. “The cookies ship well and maintain quality better than some other items in our store,” says Hiro. “I thought it was a good challenge for me to take traditional cookies and turn them into something unique and different.” The flavors span classic chocolate chip, birthday cake, oatmeal rum raisin, matcha white chocolate, Belgian dark chocolate with roasted walnuts, lemon poppy seed and cranberry orange cardamom. “My favorite as well as the most unique is our butterscotch white miso cookie,” says Hiro. “It’s a wonderful combination of salty and sweet with the white miso [a traditional Japanese ingredient], giving it something distinctive and delicious.”
With two thriving businesses and a loyal following, Hiro hasn’t looked back. “It’s so rewarding seeing my dreams come true,” says Hiro. “I feel so lucky to have a lot of people that supported me. A few years ago I was manager of a busy restaurant, but now, what a change.”