By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a big mainstream retail business opened in Chinatown International District (ID), Bartell Drugs seems to do everything right.
The 125-year-old family-owned company celebrated its 65th store’s grand opening in the ID on Sept. 17. Gifts and discounted prices attracted close to 400 people lining up early in the morning.
Being a good neighbor, Bartell’s CEO Brian Unmacht presented a check of $2,500 to InterIm, an organization that focuses on building low-income housing in the ID.
Ironically, InterIm founder, the late Bob Santos, once protested a big business — McDonald’s plan to expand in the ID a decade ago, for fear of gentrification of the ID neighborhood.
Bartell’s ID store manager is of Asian descent. Jan Caraang is Filipino American and the head pharmacist is of Vietnamese descent. Currently, it has nine full-time staff members.
Bartell also gave a reception to community businesses, including Seattle Chinese Chamber members and Uwajimaya. In addition to Bartell’s CEO, several upper managers were present to greet guests, including Billy Chow, vice president of pharmacy, and pharmacy district manager, Daiana Huyen.
What’s so special about the ID store?
It is one of the few stores which offers an ice cream fountain, hot coffee, and a beer counter. Other stores have only one or the other. There are also all kinds of snacks and food products like milk. It’s more like a 7-11 store combined with a pharmacy.
According to another manager, the ID store has hardwood floors, while many other downtown stores don’t. The ID store is generally smaller than other Bartell branches, and has a vertical layout due to its physical size.
Sam Chan, a partner of Luke’s Pharmacy which up till now, was the only drug store in Chinatown, said there are both positive and negative impacts with Bartell moving in.
“Consumers will have choices,” Chan said. “We can’t help people asking for beer and wine. But what we do is not something chain stores can do. We deliver prescriptions to patients when they can’t walk to pick it up. When they travel and need medicine in advance, we help them with that.”
Why expand in the ID?
Unmacht said Bartell was looking for a changing neighborhood and robustness. The ID provides great potential. Located at the intersection of 4th and Jackson streets, it is in the hub of mass transit, including the light rail, Sounder, streetcars, and several bus routes, and next to two stadiums. Passengers who need a quick bite, and travelers who need small-sized items before going to the Sea-Tac Airport can hop into Bartell.
So far, Caraang said, “Sandwiches are the best selling items, and we are selling a lot.”
The travel-size section is bigger than many other Bartell store.
Although Bartell is the largest locally-owned company, its growth centers in the Greater Seattle area. It opens two stores a year.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.