By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Businessman Phil Sancken had one objective in his mind when he visited the town of Fukuoka, Japan, during a business trip 10 years ago. Fukuoka, located in the southern part of the country, is famous for its tonkatsu pork broth ramen.
“I always looked forward to eating ramen,” said Sancken. “Each city has something different to offer, but it was Fukuoka’s ramen broth that spoke to me. After I kept returning to the ramen shop [in Fukuoka], I knew I wanted to bring the dish to the States.”
Accompanied by his Japanese business partner and friend, Ryo Izawa, Sancken made the decision to showcase Fukuoka’s coveted ramen in Seattle. Sancken, who is white, saw Seattle as an untapped hub for authentic ramen soup.
He chose the International District as the home for his restaurant, Samurai Noodle, located on the same block as the Uwajimaya grocery store complex.
“People in Seattle had long enjoyed many different kinds of Asian food.
So there was a lot of opportunity in bringing ramen over to the city. … I knew it was one that would complement the Seattle Asian food scene,” said Sancken.
When Larry Larson was laid off from his job with the City of Seattle in 2008, he sent out many resumes. One of his resumes landed on the desks of Scott Shapiro and Jim Potter, two local businessmen who had purchased the building site of the former American Hotel.
Located on South King Street in the International District, the American Hotel was built in 1925 as a single room occupancy hotel for seasonal workers in the fishing and mining industries. It was previously used by the Union Gospel Mission as a women’s and children’s shelter until Shapiro and Potter purchased and reopened it in 2009.
Shapiro and Potter kept part of the building’s old name before turning the former hotel into a hostel and rechristening it to Hostelling International Seattle, American Hotel (HI-Seattle). They hired Larson as the hostel’s general manager.
“The International District is a destination in Seattle. When people travel, the city’s Chinatown is usually a big draw for visitors. And [Shapiro] likes turning old buildings into something nice and new, so the International District was really an ideal location for a hostel venture,” said Larson.
Attorney James Buckley has long catered to minorities. Buckley practices personal injury law and opened his first law office, Buckley & Associates, in Tacoma in 1983.
After seeing that so many of his clients were Asian, Buckley thought it would be advantageous to move to and open a second office on South Lane Street in the International District.
“Our clients come from diverse nationalities and reach out to us because of our reputation for helping minorities,” said Buckley, who is Black. “Many of them come here through word of mouth. They believe that my staff can talk to judges in a different way due to our ability to understand the cultural concerns of those who cannot communicate well in English.”
Setting up shop in the International District
“We enjoy the vibrant and energetic Asian community,” said Doris Barber, office manager of Gold & Silver Traders off of South Jackson Street. “We’ve made new friends as well as customers.”
When it came to choosing a home for Samurai Noodle, Sancken knew that the International District would be ideal due to the location of Uwajimaya. The grocery store chain boasts a variety of Asian food specialties, and he knew the location would draw all lovers of Asian cuisine.
“Uwajimaya attracts a broad range of customers. Given Seattle’s unique location and relationship with Asian countries, Asian cuisine has really come to define much of Seattle culture,” said Sancken.
His 14-seat shop features a diverse menu of ramen noodle soups, with the tonkatsu ramen serving as its most popular dish. While Sancken takes care of Samurai Noodle’s business needs, Izawa manages its daily operations, including the training of both Asian and non-Asian chefs to cook authentic ramen and broth.
For HI-Seattle, the location of the former American Hotel brings a wealth of advantages for travelers, such as easy access to the light rail, bus, and train. The Chinatown area also has cheap dining options.
It is also within walking distance to local attractions, such as city tours in Pioneer Square or game outings at Qwest Field or Safeco Field.
“You can always go downtown to see the sights, but when you come home to rest, you want peace and quiet. You’re not going to get that with lodging downtown. … People literally stay with us to get rest. We provide the peace and quiet, yet we’re still accessible to what people want to see,” said Larson.
The 90-room hostel is the seventh largest hostel in the United States. Larson, who is white, runs the hostel with 17 staff members who speak various languages to cater to their international guests.
Larson said that Asian travelers frequent the hostel, noting that 21 percent of the visitors are from Asia.
With the opening of his Seattle office, Buckley opened up to the diversity of his clientele.
He knew a move to the International District would better cater to his clients, many of whom had lives or homes near Chinatown.
“Twenty-five percent of our clients do not speak English and many of them are Asian. We wanted to bring our services to them, making it more accessible for their needs if they don’t have the capabilities to come to us,” said Buckley.
Many of the Buckley & Associates employees are bilingual. Languages spoken among the 25-person staff include Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian, among others. The ability to make the firm physically and culturally accessible has raised the local community’s awareness of the law firm’s unique talents.
Interaction within the International District
When Sancken first opened up shop in 2006, lunch hours brought in the most business for the restaurant. But since Amazon’s departure from its old offices on Fifth Avenue, there’s been a decline in Samurai Noodle’s sales. The restaurant chain, however, is still thriving with a second location in the University District and a possible third one on Capital Hill.
Sancken said that race does not play a role in how customers enjoyed their food at Samurai Noodle.
“To some degree, I’m sure the public has a bias about non-Asians cooking Asian food,” said Sancken. “But the basics of food operation are really ‘ethnic-free.’ For good customer experience and service, people can be trained.”
Other local restaurants also respect the business and cooking behind Samurai Noodle. The restaurant shares a strong relationship with nearby businesses, particularly with the team at Uwajimaya.
Larson also works closely with the community. He routinely attends and participates in meetings regarding parking, citizen safety, and other concerns within the International District.
“There’s a lot of drugs and prostitution on our streets at night. If people don’t feel safe, what’s the point of developing business [in the International District]?” said Larson.
Larson said that community upkeep in the International District, such as safety patrol and regulation, is a grassroots operation. Thus, it is important for local organizations to work together to protect the neighborhood.
Buckley also believes in the necessity of giving back to the area. He often attends fundraisers located in the International District aimed at benefitting various Asian-interest groups.
“I’ve been a part of the International District community for a long time and it’s gone through a lot of changes,” said Buckley. “So I see a personal obligation to not only preserve the International District, but to help grow it and its people.” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.