By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly
This year, Renton became the third largest city in Washington state in terms of Asian population, according to the newly released 2010 U.S. Census. It ranks after Seattle and Bellevue. Its 19,298 Asian residents make up 21.2 percent of the city’s population.
Within the last decade, the City of Renton has grown rapidly in size and cultural diversity. In 2008, the Benson Hill annex officially became a part of the city, adding about 16,300 to the city’s population. Today, in the Renton School District, one can find more than 87 languages spoken among the students.
A few major Asian grocery stores also began new chapters in Renton.
“I know Renton [used to] not be very convenient for the older generation [Asians]. Because the [Asian] supermarkets were in Seattle, they’d always go there,” said Jennifer Nguyen, a Renton resident.
In 2006, though, Viet Wah Asian Food Market opened in northern Renton to serve the grocery needs of the Asian community. In 2009, Uwajimaya followed suit, opening its fourth store in the Renton Shopping Center, to bring a selection of Asian gifts, produce, and specialty meats to the Renton neighborhood.
Nonetheless, the strong presence of Asians and Pacific Islanders in Renton does not necessarily guarantee thriving business for the Asian-based stores, such as Uwajimaya.
“It seems like we don’t get as many Chinese, Taiwanese, Southeast Asian customers as I would like to see. I think a lot of it is because we are new still. A lot of them have their favorite places to go,” said Rex Hashimoto, store director of Renton Uwajimaya. However, Hashimoto considers this something Uwajimaya can overcome.
The store also faces the challenge of co-existing with other Asian-based grocery stores that have a longer history in the area.
Before taking over the management at the Renton location, Hashimoto worked at the Bellevue Uwajimaya for nine years. It was quite a change, since the Bellevue store has been there since 1978 and is a neighborhood store.
“That place took time, too. Back then, you can imagine that area was not as diverse. It did take some time for us to get that business going,” said Hashimoto.
The Renton Uwajimaya covers more than 30,000 square feet in the Renton Shopping Center. With a primary focus on Japanese products, Hashimoto said that they also focus on other Asian ethnic products.
“Lunch business here is good, from people who work around here. But because it’s not really in a neighborhood — it’s in a shopping center — we don’t get as many family type customers as we would like. That’s what we are building toward, not just a person who pops in for lunch and picks up a few things,” said Hashimoto.
Next to the entrance of the store, one can find free recipes of various Asian dishes. The ingredients are all available for purchase in various departments throughout the store. Hashimoto said that they also aim to make the store a one-stop shop for families that cook.
“Last year, we did a number of festivals, just to get our name out in the community and get the community involved. We had music and martial arts. Our next festival will be in August, which coincides with Hawaiian week. There is a good Pacific Islander population here [in Renton]. That’s also a good customer base of ours,” said Hashimoto.
“I love to cook Japanese cuisine, and since I work in Auburn and live in West Seattle, the Renton Uwajimaya is perfect because most of the time, I can make a side trip here on the way home to get what I need,” wrote Robert Brown in a yelp.com review. “For Japanese cuisine, they have everything you need. They also seem to have a very respectable inventory if you’re preparing Chinese, Korean, or Filipino dishes.”
“We get requests so often from people all over the country, ‘Will you please open an Uwajimaya where I live?’ Every once in a while, we get requests from the Bay area, Chicago, and the East Coast. But definitely, [many requests come from] the Pacific Northwest. People say, ‘Hey, I live in Bellingham, can you put an Uwajimaya in Bellingham, or Vancouver, Wash., or Tacoma?’ ” said Hashimoto.
When choosing where to shop for groceries, a convenient location is a huge deciding factor for many households, especially due to rising gas prices.
“I know some of my friends who go [to Uwajimaya] for fun, just to check it out,” said Nguyen. “One time, I bought a Hello Kitty notebook there for five dollars.” ♦
Uwajimaya Renton is located at Renton Village on 501 South Grady Way.
Sarah Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.