By John Sammon
Mollie Oto is one of those rare people of whom it could be said was truly irreplaceable. But though her recent passing saddened so many, it remains a consolation she will live on in the hearts and minds of the hundreds of friends and fans whose lives she touched over the years.
A diminutive woman physically (she was 5 foot 1 and 90 pounds), Oto left a big legacy in Sacramento. From her 14-hour-a-day work ethic to her extensive work as a community volunteer. Oto became famed in Sacramento for her high quality Japanese-style cooking, particularly her bento box lunch meals made from scratch.
“It’s a tough loss for the family and the community,” said her daughter Cheryl.
Mollie Oto passed away on Jan. 2, 2022, aged 87.
She was born in 1934 in French Camp near Stockton.
Mollie Oto was a co-founder of Oto’s Marketplace at 4990 Freeport Blvd. in Sacramento, a Japanese grocery store well-known for its quality seafood and produce. Over the years it also became a hangout for local residents to meet and converse.
“What drew people into the store was her cooking,” Cheryl Inouye said of her mother. “She did bento boxes to go. People would be at the store because they loved the special recipes. They knew they were getting quality.”
A bento box is a meal usually ordered to go Japanese style consisting typically of rice or noodles and fish or meat, with an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables.
Oto’s ancestors lived in the Hiroshima area of Japan and Cheryl’s great-great grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in 1899 where he found work as a laborer on a sugar plantation.
During World War II when the U.S. Government decided to illegally imprison 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese descent because of their race accusing them of treason, Oto and her family members were sent to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.
Her father Ted Oto and his family were imprisoned in a camp in Gila, Arizona.
Inouye said after the war her father went to butcher school and became a meat cutter.
“He did that because he wanted to be near the food. He believed it would keep his family from starving,” she said.
Ted Oto met Mollie and in 1955 the couple married.
In 1959 Ted Oto took a job running a meat and fish market called “Ted’s Meats” in the back of the Vina Vista Market on 14th Avenue in Sacramento. In the early 1960’s, Ted expanded his business and purchased the Food Center on Freeport and Fruitridge avenues and recruited his sons Russell and Michael to help him start a Japanese grocery store.
“The owner was retiring and offered to sell the grocery business,” Inouye recalled. “My dad held his breath and jumped in. The store became more Japanese specialized, with Japanese food, groceries produce and gifts. My brothers had just finished high school and before they went to college worked at the store helping out.”
In 1985 Darrell Corti, a gourmet wine-food expert and owner of an Italian market Corti Bros., suggested to Ted Oto that he locate a Japanese food outlet nearby in the Cortyard Shopping Center. Ted did and the new store was called Oto’s Japan Foods, specializing in Japanese produce, quality meats and fish.
Mollie Oto had been working in the accounting department for a company Radiological Associates, and retired in 1985 to work in the store.
“Dad was renting the building and the business was growing,” Inouye said. “My mom started making prepared Japanese dishes (bento and fresh sushi) made from scratch. There was no kitchen. She used a two-burner gas stove. She could only make perhaps 10 bento box lunches each day.”
The high quality of the lunches and other prepared Japanese foods caught on with the public and the store became popular.
“In the boxes she would have rice and a pickled vegetable, and fish or meat for protein,” Inouye said. “She was making at most 20 (boxes) a day for the regular customers, but the popularity of the lunches meant they were outgrowing the store.”
In 2007 Ted and Mollie opened a new larger store (Oto’s Marketplace) on Freeport Blvd. in South Sacramento.
“It was a much larger space and she was able to use a kitchen that was designed to expand the bento box business,” Inouye said. “Today over 300 are served along with side dishes. They usually sell out each day.”
On weekends a second round of prepared meals were served for the dinner crowd. Devoted customers some coming from many miles away loved the meals and included people of all different ethnic backgrounds.
“It became a very diverse demographic, not just people of Japanese heritage,” Inouye said.
Mollie Oto was a dedicated community volunteer. She served on the board of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento as its first female member starting in 1978, and was a Sunday school teacher in Stockton and Sacramento for over 20 years. She served on the board of the Sacramento Women’s Buddhist Association from 1993 until her passing.
“An annual fund-raiser for the Sacramento Buddhist Church (2401 Riverside Blvd.) was its Japanese Cultural Bazaar,” Inouye said. “For the Bazaar Mom would create pastries from scratch.”
“Mollie Oto was a pillar of our community,” said Barbara Nakatomi, past president of the Sacramento Buddhist Women’s Association.
“Not only did she express her kindness and generosity to the Sacramento Buddhist Church and Women’s Association – but her generosity was far reaching through the Japanese American community and throughout the greater Sacramento area.”
“My personal experience of her mentorship has only been in the last 10 or so years, but her deep kindness and compassionate spirit made it feel like a lifetime. She was whole heart and no nonsense in the kindest of ways. I am Sansei and lacking in full Japanese and Buddhist cultural nuance and language. Mollie graciously helped me along through the protocol necessary to serving in elected positions at the Sacramento Buddhist Church. It was so easy to love her and be inspired to follow her lead. Mollie has a place in my heart forever.”
Inouye said her mother’s determination to make the best meals possible came to be widely recognized.
“I think that was what made her so popular, the quality,” she said. “For example you could get fresh teriyaki with marinade grilled into it, not just poured over the top of the teriyaki like with many market offerings. The coleslaw was fresh and made by hand. It was good and healthy.
You have to have a passion and my mom enjoyed it she loved cooking and serving others,” Inouye added. “There were no shortcuts in the preparation. That was not her way.”
Despite the popularity and demand Inouye said Mollie kept the price of the meals reasonable when she could have gotten more.
“Mom always thought of her customers,” she said.
Ted Oto passed away in 2016.
Inouye said at Mollie’s passing she was amazed at the number of condolence cards she received from friends and customers, many of whom thanked her for feeding them for so many years.
“Among the cards were those from former employees at the store who had moved on and taken other occupations,” Inouye said. “They thanked my mother for being so patient and kind to them, for believing in them. They felt like they were part of our family.”
Inouye worked in the entertainment industry in Southern California but returned to help out in the store and be closer to her parents. She has two brothers and sisters.
“We’ve been a very close family,” Inouye said.
Ted and Mollie have six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Today the sons Russell and Michael run Oto’s Marketplace along with Inouye and a sister Florence. Inouye said the tradition of high quality her mother insisted on continues. Oto’s is today one of the area’s few remaining Japanese family-run grocery stores.
“We’re a full-service store with fresh produce,” Inouye said. “We drive out to farms to get the produce and we have quality meats and fresh fish flown in on ice. We have Japanese food to go and groceries.”
Inouye said in the past each New Year’s Day Jan. 1 (Japanese New Year) was a big open-house-type celebration for the Japanese American community in Sacramento. Friends would come in to the store to help out as volunteers to meet the demand for prepared meals.
Some of the Kitchen staffers have been with the store for over 20 years.
“We’ve had a dedicated team and we want to continue that legacy,” Inouye said.
Inouye said her mother’s strength, her character and work ethic defined her.
“In a way she was like a warrior,” Inouye said. “She always said, ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’”
During a memorial service for Mollie Oto, bento box lunches were provided for attendees from a local restaurant.
“She was such a humble lady,” Inouye said. “All the cards and text messages received from people who felt lucky to have known her. She became an icon and an inspiration. Serving others, that kept her going each day. Anyone who met Mollie loved and respected her.”
She is missed by so many.
A website on Oto’s Marketplace can be seen at www.otosmarket.com.