By MIEKO BEYER
Improving upon the design of the widely used waribashi (disposable chopsticks) wasn’t enough for Cropsticks founder Mylen Yamamoto, whose innovative addition of an easily detachable hashioki (chopstick rest) earned her a spot on Season 8 of the popular business reality show “Shark Tank” — Yamamoto also wanted to make a product that was as eco-friendly as possible.
“I think I’m your average sustainability-minded millennial that knows we have to take care of the environment,” she said. “But I know I could do more.”
Yamamoto’s perspective of “more” would certainly have most millennials scrambling to play a bit of catch-up. Simply capitalizing on a creative and potentially lucrative design was never her vision. Instead, Yamamoto planned tirelessly from the start to manufacture her design with the sustainable, fast-growing crop of bamboo instead of wood. Roughly 45 percent of the 80 billion disposable chopsticks manufactured each year are made from wood, which contributes to deforestation, particularly in China, where the bulk of chopstick manufacturing is done.
Born and raised in Aiea, Hawaii, her upbringing also added to how much she cares about the environment. “In Hawaii there’s an emphasis on taking care of the land/ I knew if I wanted to bring it to market, I also wanted to make it sustainable.”
Though she did not get a deal from the Sharks after presenting Cropsticks on Season 8, she pushed forward with manufacturing and the company has been flourishing ever since. Now Cropsticks can be found everywhere from prestigious upscale restaurant chains like Roy’s and Hakkasan to L.A. spots like Inko Nito and Sake Dojo.
Her future vision is now for an even greener Cropsticks — one where waitstaff can easily set aside used Cropsticks, which will then be picked up by the company and transported to a special recycling facility to be upcycled into new products like tables, wall art and coasters.
Yamamoto came up with the idea to upcycle Cropsticks after a friend sent a viral video by ChopValue, a Vancouver-based firm that creates products from both wooden and bamboo chopsticks at a rate of 100,000 pairs per day. She reached out to ChopValue and the eco-minded companies hit it off right away.
ChopValue’s founder, Felix Böck, now sits on Cropsticks’ advisory board and she has already launched a pilot program in Little Tokyo, where popular establishments like Far Bar, a Cropsticks client, participate.
“I think it’s a good program,” said Don Tahara, owner of Far Bar and Sake Dojo. “If you think about it, we go through a lot of chopsticks. About 50 percent of our customers at Far Bar are using them and almost 100 percent at Sake Dojo. It’s very, very good as far as a recycling program. We have a separate container and it’s been okay, we just have to make sure we don’t throw them away. Right now we want to make sure we have a good recycling program. In the future we’ll probably have something made.”
Indeed, the recycling program does require a shift in routine. The throwaway nature of chopsticks is deep-rooted not just at eateries in the U.S. but in Asia as well. Criticism of its effects on deforestation in countries where it is most commonly used, China and Japan, have not slowed down the thriving industry, where the disposability is seen as not just a form of convenience, but also cleanliness and hygiene. And although the U.S. makes up a smaller percentage worldwide for disposable chopstick use, the 11 billion that are imported each year are still a sizable source of waste.
“Of course we want to expand everywhere,” said Yamamoto. “But this past year we became more realistic versus idealistic and are focusing on the West Coast, and we’re working hard to bring the recycling program to the city of Los Angeles.”
Though Cropsticks focuses on the American market, it happened to catch the eye of a distributor in Japan and can now be found in several Kyoto restaurants, where customers have given glowing feedback.
“Our Japanese customers are some of our biggest fans,” said Yamamoto. “I think because of the hashioki, they think it’s really cool.”
And Cropsticks doesn’t just want to sell to restaurants. The company also hopes to make eco-friendly disposable chopsticks as accessible as on-the-go cutlery like the plastic spoon or fork, with Cropsticks available to purchase in 100-piece packs and giftable 25-piece three-packs on their site, cropsticks.co. You can even find packs of Cropsticks available for purchase in person at all Walgreens locations in Hawaii.
Yamamoto first came up with the idea of a disposable chopstick with a built-in rest in 2015. While on a flight, her chopsticks kept rolling away and the frustration inspired what would one day become Cropsticks. At the time she worked as the assistant director at the Fred Kiesner Center for Entrepreneurship at Loyola Marymount University and as a talent manager for CliqueNow, a YouTube-focused company she founded that counts hugely popular channels such as Fung Bros. and LeendaDProductions as clients.
Though she already had entrepreneurial experience with CliqueNow and mentored and taught students interested in creating businesses, the idea of creating and manufacturing a product came unexpectedly.
She researched and set into motion the process of taking her chopstick design from dream to reality, though she had no prior experience in making products or manufacturing. Her starting point was “Shark Tank” judge Lori Greiner’s book “Invent It, Sell It, Bank It!: Make Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality.”
“From reading the book, I knew in order to test the market I had to make something, so I learned about 3D printing,” she explained. “I drew exactly what I had in my mind and the 3D printing business took the drawing and made it a CAD design, then it’s printed as a plastic, physical object.”
This plastic prototype was mainly a visual but could also demonstrate the function, as Yamamoto found out at a dinner with family and friends when an enthusiastic youngster put it to the test. “This one kid snapped it and then he actually picked up his food and ate with it, and I was like ‘Oh, everyone’s touched that and second of all you just snapped my prototype!’ I still tease him about it all the time.”
Nowadays, Yamamoto hardly has to worry about having any shortage of waribashi to demonstrate the snap-off hashioki. Today she devotes her time to optimizing the company’s eco-friendly standards. Neither the chopstick rest nor her environmentalism are gimmicks — both are ingrained parts of her cultural values.
“I taught English in Japan and I think it elevated my manners and food etiquette,” she said. “I noticed how clean the tables were…the rest is just part of how you eat.”
And her dedication to the environment comes not just from concerns about waste caused by manufacturing, but also out of consideration for future generations, a perspective passed down from her grandfathers, both World War II veterans and Congressional Medal of Honor winners.
On her mother’s side, Yamamoto is of Filipino heritage, and her grandfather was in the Navy. On her father’s side, Yosoi Yamamoto fought in Germany and Italy. He was shot by a German sniper in both his head and leg and took part in the devastating battle at Monte Cassino that left him one of only 14 soldiers alive out of 185 in his company.
“Japanese American soldiers were often put in front,” Yamamoto said of the catastrophic numbers. “He really had to fight to prove himself as an American, and I thought if I’m going to do something I’m not going to take a generation backward, I need to keep progressing it forward. After everything he did, it’s a sacrifice that needs to mean something.”
Close to her family, she often travels back to Hawaii, where her father was a teacher for 40 years in industrial design. Emulating her father from an early age, Yamamoto was always interested in being an educator. “I used to pretend to be a teacher and force my little sister to be a student,” she recalled. “She did end up skipping a grade, though.”
Yamamoto credits her mother for her natural self-assurance in business, “I definitely get my hustle from my mom,” she said. “She was always in sales.”
Though founding Cropsticks has been an exciting challenge, she misses teaching, and takes every opportunity she can to mentor and speak to other entrepreneurs. This weekend Yamamoto will speak at the 19th annual Asian Small Business Expo, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 6, at Quiet Cannon, 901 Via San Clemente, Montebello. She will be on a women entrepreneur panel, “Grow Your Digital Presence,” and act as a judge on “Business Pitch Competition: 2 Minutes for $2K” at the event.
Whether teaching others or taking her company to new heights, Yamamoto stays true to her values of making her life work about improving the world for future generations.