By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Scott Heimberger is often spotted sitting near the entrance of the new Jing Jing Asian Market, greeting customers as they come in. Heimberger isn’t a bag boy though — he’s actually Jing Jing’s owner.<!–more–>
Located in the Factoria North Plaza in Bellevue, Jing Jing is a grocery store that aims to cater to the growing Asian population on the Eastside, particularly the Chinese. According to numbers released by the U.S. Census on Feb. 23, Asians comprise 27.6 percent of Bellevue’s residents, a significant increase from 17.4 percent in 2000. “Bellevue has a fantastic Chinese community,” said Heimberger. “And Factoria (a neighborhood of Bellevue) has the largest Chinese community in Washington state outside of Chinatown.”
Man meets woman
The store opened on Dec. 20, 2010. It is named after Heimberger’s wife, Jing Jing He. As they put it, the story of their Asian market is a simple love story.
Heimberger graduated from the University of Washington in 1988 with a degree in international studies and eventually landed in Shanghai to open a health club inside the Shanghai Hilton for a large company. Shanghai is where Heimberger, who is fluent in Mandarin, met He. She
also worked for a 5-star hotel as a beverage manager. They married and created a life in China.
In 1993, they decided to move to Seattle, though the couple still spent a lot of time in Asia. Heimberger earned his Master of Business Administration from Seattle University in 1997.
Heimberger worked as a financial analyst for about seven years for SSA Marine Inc., before becoming the business development vice president at a global company. Jing Jing He worked for Asian American Television (AATV) as an anchor.
Despite all the bright spots, there was one aspect of their life in China that the couple particularly yearned for. In the United States, they found that they missed the foods of Asia. So they decided to “go for it” and start their own grocery store filled with the items they liked.
A store is born
“Look at my past experience,” Heimberger said. “It has nothing to do with what I’m doing now.”
Though Heimberger lacked experienced in running and branding an Asian market, he had wanted to develop his own business for a number of years. He made up for his lack of experience with a lot of research and extreme attention to detail.
Heimberger partnered with one of his wife’s relatives, who lives in Shanghai. They have invested $2 million in the store.
His research led him to place the store in the Eastside because he saw ample opportunity to grow and serve a burgeoning niche. “The Asian population in the Puget Sound region is growing and moving everywhere. It’s nice for them to have a store where they are.”
The Jing Jing building is situated next to the Factoria Mall, and Jing Jing shares about 125 parking spaces with another building.
Nick Gaige, a Bellevue resident, said that the building Jing Jing inhabits used to be part of a tanning salon and, in the 1990s, an extension of Bellevue College (then Bellevue Community College). He welcomes its latest incarnation. “In the South Bellevue area, there are about three options for Asian groceries, mostly Korean,” Gaige wrote in a review on yelp.com. “To have a selection of Chinese staples without having to drive into Seattle is nice for Eastsiders.”
“They actually have decent fresh vegetables and items,” added Gaige. “I noticed a lot of Taiwanese items.”
Heimberger wants each of his stores to be between 9,000 and 10,000 square feet (to compare, the 99 Ranch store in Edmonds is about 30,000 square feet) because he thinks that’s the optimal size that strikes the balance between personalized service and a comprehensive inventory.
Heimberger also drew inspiration from well-known chains Trader Joe’s and Uwajimaya.
“It’s a great grocery store,” he said, speaking about Uwajimaya. “However, it’s Japanese focused. So I took from its model — very clean and very good service — and wanted to give it a Chinese focus. I want my store to be bright, clean, energetic, with very wide aisles.”
When asked whether Jing Jing will take away from Chinatown businesses, including Uwajimaya, Heimberger said, “I don’t think it will because each store has its own niche.”
“What an honor,” said Tomoko Matsuno, Uwajimaya president, when she was told that Jing Jing partly modeled itself on Uwajimaya.
As to whether she sees Jing Jing as a threat, Matsuno is not too worried. “Of course, it’s competition. But you cannot control competition. All the suburban [Asian] markets affect us. [Actually], what will hurt everybody most is the new gas price. Every time the gas price increases, it affects our business because people start thinking, ‘How far am I willing to go?’ ”
If anything, Heimberger says, Jing Jing may give mainstream grocery chain a run for their money.
There is a Safeway and a QFC nearby. Jing Jing has a surprising number of non-Asian customers.
Heimberger observed that they don’t necessary patronize the store for its Asian items, but for its meats and produce — because those items are priced lower than mainstream grocery stores.
Bellevue Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee has a different view point. “I don’t think it’s competition,” Lee said. “Jing Jing has its own niche. And I am impressed. The merchandise is well-prepared and priced [well]. When you buy something — for instance, meat — there is little fat. You don’t waste anything.”
Heimberger does see a potential issue when SR 520 Bridge begins tolling in the spring of 2011. Tolls may discourage Eastsiders from traveling to the International District to buy groceries.
99 Ranch declined to comment on whether it sees Jing Jing as competition.
A wink and a smile
After opening, Heimberger fielded a few unexpected complaints. His Chinese customers said that the service at the store was too friendly, and it made them uncomfortable.
Rather than making the service colder, Heimberger pushed forward and is trying to get both his staff members and customers to see a personable Chinese grocery store as normal.
He has created incentives for his staff members. “If I see someone on my staff do something above-and-beyond, I’ll immediately give him or her a ticket to put into a lucky draw pot. [The idea is for them] to get prizes for doing something right for the store.”
Similarly, Heimberger wants to eventually create a customer membership program to reward customers for their loyalty. Qualified customers would be invited to exclusive shopping events or would be given special promotions. He’s also toying around with the idea of organizing a major event every month. An example would be a Cinco de Mayo day, for his Mexican customers.
“My other objective is to bring non-Asians to the store,” said Heimberger. “Non-Asians come in, interested, but they don’t know how to cook Asian dishes. The next step is giving out recipes and packing all the ingredients for them. They come to shop and will have something ready to cook when they go home. The interest is there for non-Asians, but there is a lack of knowledge [on cooking Asian food].”
Heimberger wants Jing Jing to grow into a chain, and his goal is to open a new store every other year. He says new stores will not always be Chinese-oriented — it largely depends on the community that the store resides in. “Whatever the community needs,” said Heimberger. ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.