Cracking Open Conbini: Japanese-Western Condiments
The Mahalo team got in touch with Holly Dalton, founder of Conbini. After earning her BA in Culinary Arts, interning in a double Michelin-star restaurant and gaining fifteen years of experience as a professional chef, the pandemic hit so she boldly turned her skills and lifelong love for Japan into her very own business. This brings us to Conbini: her delicious range of Japanese-inspired condiments made to be the perfect pantry staples.
What’s behind the name Conbini?
“Conbini” is the shorthand name for convenience stores in Japan. These are more like cultural institutions of convenience rather than mere shops. Think excellent food to go, coffee, hot deli items, somewhere to send post, pay bills or buy concert tickets, Conbinis do it all! The real stand out though is their incredible selection of sandos, onigiri and microwave meals. Whenever I go to Japan, the Conbini is my first stop!
You say Conbini is made with a dash of kawaii. What’s that about?
Kawaii is the Japanese concept of “cute”. Kawaii means that something is adorable, lovable and doesn’t take itself too seriously. This concept can easily be seen in Sanrio characters such as Hello Kitty, Harajuku street fashion and even company mascots. In terms of my business, I’ve applied it to the branding of our Japanese condiments in the form of our mascot, Shiba-san, who graces the front of every bottle!
What can you do with your sauces?
Our Japanese sauces are designed for versatility. They go great in sandwiches, curries, stir fries, rice bowls and marinades. Our Katsu Ketchup is the perfect chip and potato waffle dunker - I even bring it in the car when I go for chips! Our Sunday Sauce was really made for marinades and stir fries; it probably has the highest umami levels of our three sauces so it’s hard to set a foot wrong with this sauce. Our Onsen Hot sauce has plenty of funk and kick with a decent spice level. It works really well mixed with mayo as a dipping sauce, adding kick to a marinade or drizzled on fried chicken or tacos. I personally like hot sauce on most of my dinners!
What's it like running your own business?
I personally love running my own business. I have always wanted to be my own boss and while it can be scary from a financial security standpoint, it is extremely rewarding. I love that everything I do, I am doing for the benefit of my own business which in itself is a product of my ideas and creativity. The satisfaction of seeing your products on the shelf of a shop that you admire is incredible. I never thought that I’d be getting emails and DMs from customers just to tell me how much they love the product or how they use it in their cooking. It’s especially rewarding when someone from the Japanese community gets in touch saying that they love our sauces.
What did you do before?
I was a chef working in restaurants and cafés for fifteen years prior to starting my own business. During Covid the restaurant that I was working at closed. Instead of rushing out to find another head chef position I decided to start my own business centered around my love for Japanese food. It was a bold decision at the time but I still stand by it!
What's your favourite meal to cook for yourself?
I love jazzing up instant noodles and making them super spicy. My go to is Shin Ramyun with scallions and a fried egg. I’ll often put some hot sauce and peanut butter in the broth too. It’s the ideal quick and easy meal for one!
Tell us about your career as a chef. What are some of the highlights?
During my Culinary Arts BA I was able to intern at Frantzen in Stockholm. At the time it was ranked as the 12th best restaurant in the world and it had two Michelin stars (it has three now). I had had some very negative experiences in kitchens up to that point so I was very hesitant at the beginning of the internship. Interning at Frantzen taught me that a kitchen team can have fun and joke around while still taking your job very seriously and producing incredible food. The sense of camaraderie in the kitchen there restored my fate in fine dining and gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a chef.
I was also given an opportunity later in my career to be the head chef of a restaurant when it was opening. The restaurant received a lot of buzz and great reviews and I was even asked to take part in a television documentary off of the back of it. I left the restaurant shortly before starting my own business and I was glad that I was able to have the experience of heading a restaurant kitchen during it’s opening.