If you’ve spent any time in Melbourne’s north side suburb of Collingwood over the last 13 years, you would surely have heard of CIBI. Since opening the doors to their lifestyle concept store and cafe almost 15 years ago, owners Meg and Zenta Tanaka have established CIBI as a much loved neighbourhood staple for Japanese inspired food and wares.
With spaces in both Melbourne and Tokyo, CIBI is a cafe and a retail store that focuses on good quality produce and design pieces. But it’s also much more than these things. A kind, meaningful and simple life well lived is built into the CIBI philosophy. It’s very much a family business – a family that goes beyond Meg, Zenta and their sons Uta (11) and twins Haru and Shun (6), extending to its staff, customers, makers, growers and neighbours.
Located in a former garment factory, the CIBI space might be vast in scale, but it feels warm and intimate, almost like you’re entering the home of a close friend. That feeling is a testament to Meg and Zenta’s dream of building a creative life and business that work in harmony together, where everyone feels welcome and the small, daily joys are celebrated. Naturally, their three boys have grown up with CIBI as a second home.
Meg and Zenta opened CIBI in 2008, their first son Uta was born in 2010, and their twin boys Haru and Shun followed five years later. The most recent addition to the family is their dog, Momo.
We spoke with Meg about life with her family, the CIBI way.
First of all, can you tell me a little about how and where you and Zenta met? When was that?
We met in Adelaide in the late 90’s while at university, I was studying wine and Zenta architecture. I grew up in rural Okayama Prefecture and Zenta is a city boy, growing up in Yokohama Prefecture.
Was food and nourishment a big part of your own childhood?
I grew up in the countryside of Okayama. Growing, harvesting and sharing produce was a natural part of my daily life for as long as I can remember. Simple exchange from neighbour to neighbour provided bountiful variety. I was growing up with my parents, sister/brother, grandparents and a great grandma all under one roof, so someone was always in the kitchen preparing food, pickling vegetables, chopping and cooking while others were at the farm outside, harvesting fresh vegetables that they would cook for dinner. How we ate was a diet of various kinds of ingredients portioned to provide nourishment for the whole family.
Leaving home travelling, experiencing many different food cultures and living in different parts of the world has also informed and inspired what I do. I like to share who I am with where I am.
CIBI always has a really community focused, family feeling. Do your kids spend a lot of time at CIBI? Do you consciously teach them much about the family business?
Uta, our first son was born in 2010 when CIBI was in its second year of business. He grew up at the shop, a customer/friend would get him to sleep while we were serving customers. Then a year later he was in a milk crate watching Zenta make coffee. By three years old he could stand at the counter and sell a muffin to a takeaway customer. A lot of customers know what Uta can do now he is 11. He can sometimes be on the floor serving during the school holidays and more than anything now days he wants to earn little bit of pocket money, but same time he doesn’t demand more. He just enjoys being involved as long as the parents don’t try to control him too much.
Our twin boys, Haru and Shun, are a little behind their big brother but always keen to take some coffee to the table while spilling a little bit. Again they just like to help out, see people and enjoy being part of CIBI, it really is an extension of their home.
We don’t really teach them but sure we do talk about it with them, share beautiful moments in the store, about the products, makers, food and growers. Somehow they take in the details little by little, and sometimes what they say about the business or products do blow our mind time to time. I see our boys recognise CIBI as their part of home, and not just a work place.
Do you have family in Japan? how has it been staying connected to them during the pandemic?
Yes, my family lives in my childhood home of Okayama. My grandma is 98 now and along with my parents we have introduced them to the world of FaceTime. Holding onto relationships with our boys and sharing the season’s produce, what’s cooking, simple conversations that make us feel warm and connected.
Before the pandemic, did your family visit Japan often?
We used to travel quite often, visiting the countryside where I grew up is always a highlight, reconnecting with my roots and seeing the kids spend time with relatives and nature is always a beautiful experience.
Our family extends to our CIBI Tokyo and CIBI corner store teams, and customers in Tokyo, and the communities of local businesses like our CIBI Tokyo fish supplier in our street. We can’t wait to see them soon. Visiting our manufacturers and makers to learn about their products and their lifestyle highlighted our passion to share their creation at CIBI Melbourne, too.
We always have a busy schedule returning to Japan, lots of warm friendships to tend to, which makes us happy.
Your business philosophy is ‘Head, hands, heart’. Where does that philosophy come from? Is it something that you share with your kids?
We based it on a word or saying in Japanese “I-Shoku- Ju” that in old Japan, life was about “clothing, food and living space”. We translated it to; Head, home to our creative thoughts and ideas, Hands, the tools of making and cooking, Hearts, simple living, passion and kindness.
We hope the kids are learning this concept by living alongside us everyday in life and business, sharing with many different people in our society, school and community. We often talk about it with the boys, how wonderful life would be if we could all care and do the things we believe in.
Running a small business and having small children are both pretty all consuming jobs! How do you and Zenta balance and share the parenting/business load?
We try not to put too many demands on our children or ourselves and seek the joys as they present themselves and roll with the bits in between. Flexibility in parenting roles works for Zenta and I, not perfectly, haha, but it works the best for now.
We are very lucky for our adopted extended family and community, Zenta and I are not alone in bringing joy to our kids. Plenty of aunties and uncles in the mix, that helps us along the way.
Are there any important traditions you have in your family that keep you connected to your culture?
If we are visiting Japan during the New Year, we visit our local Temple in Okayama at midnight, a tradition shared with our family and neighbours. In Melbourne I enjoy making traditional New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals and sharing with the boys. If you drive past CIBI on Kids Day, also our twin boys birthday, you will see carp fish flying in the breeze, recognising Kids Day in Japan.
What kind of life skills do you hope that your kids will learn from watching their parents run a business?
The path to bring to life, something they are passionate about, whatever or wherever that may be. Spending their days doing what they love adds to your happiness, not everyday is easy but that’s ok too.
What do you hope your kids remember about growing up with CIBI?
The joys of a shared life, the joys of providing for others and being creative. How life feels better in the company of others and the loving friendships they have made playing in their CIBI home.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
We are grateful CIBI is much loved by Melbourne’s community. The happiness of CIBI lifestyle travelling to CIBI Tokyo and CIBI corner store, families and children enjoying what we share. Big smiles every day for Zenta and I.