Walking into the newest Uwajimaya supermarket in Bellevue, I noticed that many smart ideas have been incorporated into this fourth store. The Bellevue store, located at 699 120th Ave. N.E., just celebrated its grand opening last Saturday.
So what is great about this new store?
It realizes that it’s not necessary to be the biggest. It realizes that location matters. It lets vendors be a part of the store. It knows how to target non-Asian customers.
The right location
Of the five Asian grocery stores in Bellevue, Uwajimaya seems to have the most ideal location; it is surrounded by businesses, a hospital, and residents. The city is 27.5 percent Asians with 33,659 people, an increase of 77.1 percent since the 2000 Census. The businesses and Asians will be a good lunch crowd for its deli since it has a Chinese bbq counter. It is also close to the freeway and another competitor, Whole Foods.
“It’s good to be close to Whole Foods because we complement each other,” said Tyler Moriguchi, a third-generation owner. “Those who shop at Whole Foods will also come to us. We were busy right away when we opened two weeks ago.”
Biggest not the best
The entire former Larry’s Market space, about half of which Uwajimaya now leases, is 60,000 square feet. But the family chose to negotiate only about half of the space. It is a smart strategy. A few years ago, another Asian grocery store took over the entire space in Seattle, and it proved to be wasteful and overwhelming for the owners when they couldn’t fill the store with the right merchandise.
“We have to do what we are good at — Asian groceries,” said Tomio Moriguchi. He pointed out that the family had discussed the size of the store extensively. They decided that 35,000 square feet is good enough for its purpose and to minimize risk. Each square foot costs about $200.
Moving and expanding from its old Bellevue space of 15,000 square feet to 35,000 square feet, the store not only doubled its size, but it has a brand new style. It might not be as big as the flagship store in Chinatown/International District, but the aisles are much wider and are more comfortable for shoppers to browse around in.
“The gift department does not have as high of a turnover as food,” he said. But it needs other Asian products to showcase Asian cultures.
With the busy traffic that Uwajimaya brings into the strip mall, Tomio thinks the city could attract another business to move in next door.
Bellevue Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee has already suggested a community center.
Mainstream Asian groceries
While the Asian market provides the bread for Uwajimaya, the much bigger market is the mainstream community. To pursue that market, Uwajimaya presents an upscale image, clean and warm, which fits nicely with the Bellevue clientele.
“We need to make mainstream the most popular Asian cuisine for the non-Asian market,” said Hiroshi Hibi, store director for both the ID and Bellevue stores. He wants his non-Asian customers to come in and become familiar with phad thai, stir-friend broccoli and beef, and other Asian dishes.
It’s an cultural experience for our customers, he said, which helps the mainstream community become comfortable with cooking Asian dishes regularly.
In nearly every corner of the store, a vendor was present to promote food on grand opening day. Close to the entrance, a big kiosk was built to feature vendors and their goods.
In fact, Hiroshi said vendors would be in a better position to promote their food than his own staff. This would save the store manpower and staff time.
The succession plan
When three generations of the Moriguchi family performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Bellevue store, a question lingered, “Who will carry the torch one day?”
Does it have to be a Moriguchi who runs the 83-year-old business worth more than $80 million?
And the answer is not only quite surprising, but it shows the flexible and realistic thinking of the Moriguchi family.
“Who is the best person [for the job]?” said Tomio, chairman of Uwajimaya. Tomio isn’t the eldest son, but he quit his engineering job in 1963 and went to work for his family’s business after his dad passed away. At the time, business was good, but the Moriguchi siblings saw that their mother was working too hard. The seven of them, which include Kenzo, Suwako, Akira, Hisako, Toshi, and Tomoko, helped it grow the family business into an icon in the Asian community. Besides its four stores in Washington state and Portland, Uwajimaya also has other retail ventures and wholesale businesses.
“It is desirable to have family members [run it],” Tomio said. However, he realizes that his own children and some of his siblings’ kids have other dreams.
“You can’t force your children,” he said. That’s the dilemma many successful family businesses face because the younger generations have another plan. Tomio wants his kids to do what they are happy doing.
To help the third generation learn about the business, Tomio said he and his sister, Tomoko Matsuno, CEO of Uwajimaya, tried to stay far away from them when they were picking the site for the Bellevue store.
According to research, the first generation can build a successful business, but it is challenging for the younger generations to sustain. Tomio said the first generation works with their hands, the second generation works with their brains, and if the third generation can also work with their brains and not their hands, that means the family has secured the business well into future generations. ♦