By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The new store of Lam’s Seafood, opening on May 30, will be completely different from its Little Saigon headquarters in size, products, and image.
Located in Tukwila, the 30,000-square-foot facility is three times bigger than the store in Little Saigon, a former warehouse. The new store’s image is enhanced by a gigantic clock tower, modeled after a famous grocery store in Vietnam.
Beyond the looming clock tower, the store’s success began with an incredible journey when George Nguyen escaped from communist Vietnam in 1979, leaving his wife behind when he was only 18. He took his father’s boat, sailed to Hong Kong, and eventually arrived in America. He hid his escape from his father because he had been caught before and put in jail. The boat was built for only seven passengers, but the refugees managed to squeeze in 38 people—he and his brother shared one bag of potatoes for a week before they arrived in Hong Kong. But that’s not the most amazing part of Nguyen’s story.
His relatives sponsored him to go to Kansas. Later, he sponsored his wife to join him. The couple started a grocery store and built up their business so well that after 20 years, a competitor offered to buy them out. But that’s not why I admire the Nguyens. From Kansas to Michigan, to California and Seattle, they raised five American-born kids, four sons and one daughter, who have not worked elsewhere, all stay together, and dedicate themselves to the family’s grocery business, with the goal of helping his dad fulfill his dreams—not theirs. That’s just not the norm for Asian immigrant children. American-born children, being acculturated in the mainstream, often shun their parents’ hard-working occupations, to pursue other professions such as lawyers, engineers, technologists, doctors, and scientists, for higher pay and less demanding physical work. Not only did Nguyen’s kids work for him as they grew up, all five spouses also work full-time in the family business. How did Nguyen transform his children’s families to see that the grocery business is not just his dream, but their future as well? How in the world did he do it? More on this later.
This is the Nguyen family’s second supermarket in greater Seattle, which offers everything the original store doesn’t. As part of Kimco development, the new facility has ample parking—900 spaces shared with a strip mall on a side entrance, in addition to 90 near to its main entrance, while the old store has just over 30 parking spaces.
Surrounded by several Asian grocery stores, the old store is part of the Chinatown-International District. Whereas the new store’s only Asian competitor nearby is the Filipino-owned Seafood City, inside Westfield Southcenter Mall. The clientele between the two stores is vastly different. Lam’s biggest clients are of Vietnamese descent.
“We want to create a community,” said Lam’s Business Operations Manager Teizi Mersai. “There is no Vietnamese community center in the greater Seattle area. Our store will serve as a community center for Vietnamese after they go to church (on Sunday).” A Vietnamese Catholic Church is near the store.
“We will have products from all over the world, including Vietnam and Thailand. There will be Chinese and lots of Southeast Asian foods. We are going to expand on our Filipino, Korean, and American food sections.”
The new store
The community center, which Mersai talked about, is Lam’s new food court. Lam’s headquarters has no other tenant. The new store’s food court is made of several other restaurants, including Golden Daisy of Beacon Hill, Go Poke and Dochi of Chinatown, Vietnam House of Great Wall Mall, Fire & Ice, and banh mi sandwiches.
Outside the food court is a sitting area, which would be ideal for the summer. But the coronavirus pandemic won’t allow Lam’s to set up outside or inside seating or on-site dining. For the time being, Lam’s will offer takeout service.
Its seafood department is one of the main attractions. Installed by a Californian Hawaii Islander, Lam’s live seafood tanks will be featured. The employees have been testing its tanks for four months to see how well the live fish, crab, and other seafood adjust to the water in the tank.
Nguyen bought Lam’s Seafood from his good friend’s daughter, Yen Lam-Steward, in 2015.
“I am super-excited and happy for the Nguyen family,” said Lam-Steward. “The new store is a one-stop shopping for everything.”
“It is too small for our community, I want to expand,” said Nguyen. He said he likes Seattle and Washington state. “It has a big Asian population. We want to expand the Asian market. The Asian market is very important. We want to go international.” The family started looking for a new location two years ago.
They found two locations, Tukwila and Lynnwood, and they picked the former. The investment was between $3 to $4 million to remodel the location, according to Terry Nguyen, one of Nguyen’s four sons.
The store opening was delayed due to construction and the pandemic. The process of applying for permits and cleaning-up contaminated soil also caused delays. There was an abandoned railway track outside the store, and the dirt under the track needed to be removed. Mersai said it’s better to take care of things from the get-go so management doesn’t need to worry about potential problems later.
One piece of equipment the old store doesn’t have is a state-of-the-art recycling machine, costing $80,000, which turns food waste into compost. The powerful machine in the new Lam’s can recycle 95% of the store’s food waste and wood products.
The journey from Kansas to Seattle
To say the success of Nguyen’s family is due to hard work is an understatement. Nguyen, 60, has worked hard ever since he came to America. As does his wife and children.
According to Terry, who was born in Kansas, his parents settled in Kansas and started a 2,000-square-foot grocery store.
“The store doubled in size and became so successful that another Vietnamese store owner bought my dad out,” so his business could survive. The family moved to Michigan and bought a 4,000-square-foot grocery store, and built it up. “The volumes were great, we sold lots of products,” said Terry.
“But the dream of my father is really a distribution center—wholesale. My father didn’t like the long hours, and no family time.” An opportunity came in California, and Nguyen bought a wholesale business from a relative, and the family moved to the Golden State. The family thinks West Coast is their future. Meanwhile, the Nguyen family bought Lam’s Seafood from his friend’s daughter, Yen Lam.
Retail grocery stores are labor-intensive. Terry recalled that it was normal to work 12-14 hours a day, without days off, when he and his siblings were growing up.
“Did you ever rebel?” I asked Terry.
“[In the grocery business,] we have to do everything,” said Terry. “My mom always took us kids along when they (parents) ran the store. So we (kids) help out. We like to help our dad. We never rebelled. We obeyed our parents. I didn’t like it as much when I was growing up because I wanted to be with friends, not always working.”
I could never imagine my own kids obeying me, from the time they were little to now grown men.
Terry, 33, and his wife Trinh Nguyen, and his sister Nhung and husband David Tran, run the Seattle and Tukwila stores, while the other siblings and in-laws run a food wholesale business in California.
Nguyen said, “I want my kids to stay in the family business. Working with mom and dad, we help each other out. I don’t push my kids, they just feel they should help each other. I am lucky to have my kids, and they listen to me. The family business gives them freedom and better lives. That’s what I try to do. If I let them do whatever they want, some might fail. I am building a foundation for my kids and a future for them. If I die, I can’t bring anything with me. But my children and grandchildren can have everything (I worked for).”
Perhaps, Nguyen has learned a long time ago that it is more important for his kids to have a strong work ethic over any other personality traits, not just for survival, but to build character. The Brookings Institute did a study on parenting. It has shown that developing character in kids is more critical than raising smart kids. Grit and drive are key to leadership. Nguyen has set examples for his children to problem-solve, take risks, stick to goals, and delay gratification. Working with the family shows that teamwork is crucial in building a business. Today, Terry has a different perspective.
“I like it now and really enjoy” being a grocery store owner, Terry said, and he doesn’t have to work all the time. “I have time to spend with my own kids. Our family is very excited about the new store. And we have the space (of the new store) to do things right.”
And now, the grown-up children can relax more. Each store has its own general manager, and Mersai oversees the two general managers. “It’s different from how we first started, we had to do everything ourselves. Now, I learn from Mersai that we have other ways of managing. One example is by delegating.”
Between the two stores, Lam’s will have over 110 employees. Mersai said they cannot hire as many as they would like. Due to social distancing, no more than 100 customers will be allowed inside the store at one time.
The new store’s opening will be a soft one. The grand opening will be held later this year.
The new Lam’s in Tukwila is located at 243 Minkler Boulevard.
Its hours are 8 a.m. – 9 p.m daily.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.