Uwajimaya plans revamp of its flagship Seattle store to showcase its vast variety

Seattle News

After nearly 75 years in Seattle’s Chinatown International District and 20 years at its current location, the flagship of the family-owned Asian grocery chain Uwajimaya is getting a major update.

The Seattle store is capitalizing on its best-selling products and services, after management gathered feedback from customers who browse its aisles often. The new front doors will open up into the produce section, aisles will be moved to make them easier to navigate with a cart, and the cash registers, which are in the middle of the store between the grocery and the beauty/kitchenware section, will be moved to the front.

The new store will feature an updated grab-and-go section for customers to buy poke, Chinese BBQ and lunchtime meals, and different sections of the store will be labeled to showcase categories such as sake and beer, health and beauty products, and different types of groceries.

It’s an effort to make the store more accessible for new customers who want to explore products they’ve never seen or used before — a recognition of the changing demographics of the Chinatown ID.

“If you go to a section, there might be 30 choices of something, and some people get overwhelmed,” Denise Moriguchi, Uwajimaya’s CEO said. 

The announcement comes on the heels of Uwajimaya’s 91st anniversary. The project, slated to start in November, will take 11 months to complete.

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The landscape of the Chinatown International District has changed in the 19 years since it opened at the present location, Moriguchi said. Uwajimaya is wedged between a Daiso (a Japanese dollar store) and T-Mobile Park. The Uwajimaya Village Apartments opened above the store, and in an effort to become a one-stop shop, the store began selling cheeses, cold cuts, and even toothpaste brands one could find at a corporate drugstore.

General manager Girwin Rillo, who has been working at the store for 15 years, said an evolving customer base meant an evolving inventory. What was a warehouse of mostly Japanese products soon became a mixed bag of Japanese, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese and American foods.

“And our customers are super-interested in stuff they don’t know much about,” Rillo said. “So even though most of our products are Japanese, more of our customers aren’t.”

But the store still stocks many of the products customers have come to expect — tamari and soy sauces sold by the jug, eight types of poke, and daikon are just a few of the popular products Uwajimaya sells. But with an evolving customer base, Moriguchi said that can pose a problem.

She picked up a bumpy green karela, an Indian bitter melon, and said, “I’m just saying, I don’t even know what you do with it.”

The remodel will include information cards and a demonstration station for customers to make sense of the dozen types of soy sauces (“If you’re making a Teriyaki, you probably want a thicker strong one, whereas if you’re eating sashimi you probably want it lighter, more flavorful,” Moriguchi said), the difference between soybean paste and miso (they’re the same thing) and how to remove the tough, waxy skin of a mature karela.

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For a family-owned retail chain like Uwajimaya, where high-volume purchases make up for razor-thin margins, a hands-on approach is necessary, said Moriguchi.

“What we’re trying to do is just focus on the experience,” she said. “Trying to dial up the demos or the information, because you can’t get that when you order on Amazon.”

The first Uwajimaya store in Tacoma in 1928 was focused on serving Japanese immigrants who settled in the Pacific Northwest and worked in timber and fishing camps. But as the region’s diversity expanded, so did Uwajimaya’s products. Soon, it was selling Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean dishware, condiments and noodles. 

After World War II, when his family could leave the Tule Lake Internment Camp in California, Fujimatsu Moriguchi moved from Tacoma to Seattle, where he opened another store. In 1962 at the Seattle World Fair, he declared, “I want Uwajimaya to be accessible and open to everyone,” according to stories from the family.

Decades later, his granddaughter, Denise, is taking the next step in that vision. If all goes as planned, she plans on using similar formats for the Uwajimaya grocery stores in Bellevue, Renton and Beaverton, Oregon.

“My job has been balancing this 91-year-old history and all this legacy and tradition with trying to move the company forward and make it relevant for today,” Moriguchi said. “I’m excited for what’s next.”

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