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Asian tiger

• Uwajimiya, the store with the Japanese name, caters to a global clientele

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Pat Hokama is browsing the expansive tea aisle at Uwajimaya, looking for a special type of powdered tea.

'I teach school, and I'm going to use it to hold a tea ceremony for my students,' Hokama says.

Hokama teaches at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., and, with her husband, regularly drives to the Beaverton grocery store for what she calls 'our necessities.'

'We have to get the fresh tofu,' she says. 'It's a long distance, so we buy enough of the staples to last.'

Uwajimaya (pronounced 'OO-wah-gee-MY-ah') prides itself on the variety and quality of Asian foods and other items it offers Ñ everything from rice cookers and chopsticks to mochi ice cream and baby octopus Ñ that are hard to find elsewhere in the area. And if that's not enough, shoppers can plan their next trip to Hawaii or pick up a book written in Japanese.

Hokama has shopped at Uwajimaya stores since she was a girl growing up in Seattle, drawn to the fresh Asian foods, as well as the family-owned atmosphere.

'My dad shopped at the original Uwajimaya store in Seattle,' she says.

Although she concedes that the Costco-size store in Beaverton 'has lost a lot of its Asian ambience,' she believes that the owners have taken the right steps to expand the business. 'They wanted the business to thrive,' she says.

The tradeoff seems to be working. While many stores in the Northwest are suffering the effects of the recession, Uwajimaya is filled with shoppers, loading their carts with seafood, produce and gift items such as durian (a green, football-size, odoriferous fruit that tastes like custard), nagaimo (a long, yam-type potato) and sea cucumbers (used for fresh sashimi).

'Convenience is important,' says Alan Kurimura, Uwajimaya's vice president of corporate and community affairs. 'You could probably go to half a dozen different stores and find these products, or you can come to Uwajimaya.'

It started with fish cakes

The business was launched in Tacoma, Wash., in 1928 by Fujimatsu Moriguchi, a native of Japan. Originally, Moriguchi sold homemade fish cakes from the back of his truck to Japanese laborers in logging and fishing camps. But when World War II broke out, Moriguchi and his family were sent Ñ along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans Ñ to the infamous internment camp at Tule Lake in Northern California.

After the war, the family settled in Seattle, where they went back into business. But it wasn't until the Seattle World's Fair in 1962 that the company really took off.

Since then, Uwajimaya, named after the city of Uwajima in Japan, where the founding Moriguchi learned how to make fish cakes, has grown into a small chain. It is the largest family-owned Asian grocery business in the Pacific Northwest, with stores in Seattle and Bellevue, Wash., as well as Beaverton.

The Moriguchi family is in its third generation of ownership.

'That's pretty unusual,' Kurimura says. 'Seventy percent of family-owned businesses don't make it into the third generation.'

Uwajimaya opened at 10500 S.W. Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in November 2000 after the family looked south and took note of the affluent and growing Asian population near Beaverton's high-tech corridor, where many Asian-based companies had outposts.

Don Sakai, who has managed the store since its opening, says the business has continued to grow. 'Overall, I think we pretty much mirror the demographics of the area in growth,' Sakai says.

Part of Uwajimaya's success, Sakai believes, has to do with its ability to create a sense of culture in the aisles.

'We really stress the cultural aspect in terms of education and experience,' he says. 'We attempt to create a situation where the customer feels comfortable being able to come in, ask questions, seek help and get it.'

Employees play a big role in that experience, Sakai says. The store has 80 full- and part-time employees, many of whom are Asian and most of whom are at least bilingual.

Uwajimaya's managers, Sakai says, understand the habits of Asian shoppers. People in Asia tend to shop more frequently than is common in this country, he notes, and that has carried over here.

'Homes are smaller, kitchens are smaller, refrigerators are smaller,' he says. 'So we have a lot of customers that come in daily, seeking the absolute freshest produce because they're going to be buying it and using it the next day.'

Appeal to all

Unlike many ethnic stores, Uwajimaya doesn't cater to just one ethnic group. Although the store began by selling strictly Japanese products, it now stocks a variety of Asian goods.

'The customer base broadened into not only Japanese and other Asians, but also to non-Asians,' Kurimura says. 'Serving not just Japanese, but all Asians and non-Asians alike makes us unique. There are chains of Chinese or Korean grocery stores, but they haven't been able to move into a broader client base.'

The key to broadening, Kurimura says, wasn't just stocking the shelves with specialty Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean items. It also involved creating community events, like the store's Hawaiian May Day and a late-summer Japanese festival.

But Uwajimaya's pan-Asian push has not been without its challenges, Sakai says. 'There are so many different Asian cultures, so many different Asian products. We have to be able to bring various cultures together and to have an understanding of various cultures.'

The store is designed, however, for those who might not be familiar with any of the products.

'We cluster the products by use for the clientele who don't know much about the products,' says Edwin Yamashita, grocery manager. 'It's going to be really obvious what each thing is used for.'

For example, sauces are grouped by the type of cooking they're used for, instead of by ethnicity or country of origin.

The Portland area, where the Asian influence is strong, is a particularly good place for this type of diversification, Kurimura says.

'If you go into someone's kitchen here, you're apt to find soy sauce, jasmine rice, fish sauces from Cambodia or Thai noodles,' he says. 'You can open someone's refrigerator and you may see fruits and vegetables that go with a Chinese meal.'

Morrie Conway, a non-Asian who frequents Uwajimaya, is a perfect example of what Kurimura means. 'I love Japanese and Vietnamese food,' he says. 'I come here for the healthy food.'

Conway often buys ingredients to cook Asian meals. 'I even make my own sushi,' he says, holding up a bag of seaweed wraps.

For those who are interested in Asian cooking, Uwajimaya offers advice, recipes and in-store cooking classes.

'In order for us to grow and for us to be a viable, successful business, we need to educate all those who may be interested in Asian foods and gifts,' Sakai says.

A fourth Uwajimaya store in the Northwest is on the drawing board as the business continues to expand.

'It is a family business story that reflects the evolving face of America,' Kurimura says.