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WATCH NOW: Japanese grocery store, cafe settle into larger Sparta location

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SPARTA — J-Mart Japanese/Asian Grocery and its owner, Brian Jewell, have expanded its merchandise selection and settled into its new, much larger location at 229 N. Black River St. in Jones Plaza in Sparta.

And Jewell’s brother, A.J. Jewell, has opened his Asian Japanese Sushi Cafe in part of the grocery store.

The cafe, which opened two months ago, can seat about 16 people and serves Japanese and other Asian food to customers who dine in or get it to go. The cafe also prepares food items in its new kitchen inside the grocery store, that are then packaged and available in refrigerated cases.

A.J. Jewell is a trained chef and makes sushi, Japanese lunches, sauces and snacks. Before opening the cafe inside the grocery store, he was making food items for the store at a commercial kitchen elsewhere in Sparta.

The grocery store opened Aug. 21 in its new location. It moved there from a smaller space in Jones Plaza, where the business began in August 2020. With the move, Jewell’s store carries a much larger selection of products.

As a child, Brian Jewell lived in Japan for about 10 years in the 1970s and early 1980s. His brother, A.J., was born in Japan and lived there for about 12 years.

They and their parents, Raymond and Chizuko Jewell, live in Sparta. Raymond had been stationed at a U.S. Navy base in Japan, where he met Chizuko, who is Japanese.

Brian Jewell said he held a variety of information technology jobs for more than 30 years in Florida, Oregon and Wisconsin, before starting the Sparta grocery store. His brother, A.J., had been a chef since 1988, mostly in Florida.

While the grocery store is open seven days a week, the cafe is open Monday through Saturday.

“Right now I’m doing 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday,” A.J. Jewell said of his cafe. “On Sunday, I have foods in the deli cooler for grab-and-go, although I’m not here then. People also can call in orders.”

“The most popular things (at the cafe) have been Asian comfort foods,” A.J. Jewell said. “that are hot or cold and ready to be reheated” at home.

“Most of what I make is Japanese,” such as curry stews, yakisoba noodles and fried rice, A.J. Jewell said, although he also prepares other Asian foods.

Brian Jewell said the grocery store sells Japanese, Korean and other Asian foods and gift items. About three-fourths of the products are Japanese, he said.

Jewell said he started the grocery store “Mostly because of a lack of selection (of Japanese food items) in the area. We would have to drive at least a couple hours away to find any of these kinds of ingredients and snacks and things,” he said.

“And sometimes we would have to go as far as Chicago,” Jewell said. “So once the opportunity came up (to start the Sparta store), I talked with a number of friends in La Crosse, Tomah and various other areas, and they said they would definitely be interested in something like this.”

By opening the store, Jewell introduced to area residents such Japanese fare as okonomiyaki, sukiyaki, sushi, desserts, tea, coffee, soda pop, beer and sake.

The food can be picked up as ready-made, prepackaged or as ingredients for cooking at home.

J-Mart also sells Asian dishware such as decorative plates, chopsticks, tea sets, ramen and rice bowls. And it sells gift items such as small appliances and cookbooks for making Japanese foods, travel mugs, books about Japanese arts and crafts, and supplies for making origami books.

Many of the store’s customers come from the La Crosse and Fort McCoy areas, Jewell said. “A lot of the soldiers there are very big customers of A.J.’s cafe,” he said. “A lot of them have been stationed overseas and are looking for a lot of the tastes that they had over there (in Asia) and have been unable to find.”

Jewell said he has been able to increase his merchandise selection at his new, larger location despite worldwide shipping issues that the COVID-19 pandemic brought. “I’ve noticed that Korean and Chinese ingredients are fairly tough to come by right now,” he said. “But before that, I was getting more and more of that stock in.”

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