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From cigarettes to sushi

Dining - Forest Grove shop ditches its cheap beer and smokes for Japanese treats
by: Chase Allgood, John Kim greets Edward Baker, a chef at Cornerstone Pub & Grill, who enjoys the California rolls and miso soup served at Forest Grove’s newest and only sushi restaurant.

From the outside, the small, brick store looks like the discount outlet that sold cigarettes and beer for the last three years in Forest Grove.

The only hint that anything has changed is the disappearance of the giant Cost-Plus sign on the building and the addition of a one-foot tall white sign on the corner of 19th Avenue and Birch Street that reads, 'Sushi.'

However, this nondescript structure has undergone a dramatic change inside.

Opening the door reveals a completely redesigned interior. Maroon walls and a few black tables and chairs have replaced the stacked cases of beer and value-sized cartons of cigarettes. Behind the counter is a dry-erase board offering a range of sushi rolls and other Japanese delicacies.

The small convenience-store-cum-sushi-bar is the work of the Kim family, who brought their business to Forest Grove three years ago after stints running similar markets in Portland.

Son John Kim didn't announce the store's shift from cigs to sushi with a big white grand-opening banner, however.

Instead, Kim said he'll depend on the food to bring in customers.

'We use the Oriental style of word-of-mouth, not big advertising like most big businesses in this country do,' said John Kim, who runs the business along with brother Sung, his father Kug Joo Kim and mother OK II Kim.

Customers can still buy cigarettes from a drawer behind the counter, and beer and wine are on the menu, but the Kims, who are Korean immigrants, are hoping to draw on college students hungry for an affordable taste of Japan, rather than those cruising on a late-night beer run.

Kim believes the restaurant's small-town feel 'offers an alternative to the sushi-train or fancy-style restaurants found in Hillsboro and Beaverton.' The Kims are so casual that they haven't even printed menus yet because their selection has changed several times already since the opening.

The restaurant business has been part of the Kim family tradition for at least three generations. Kug Joo Kim has worked in restaurants for most of his life.

But three years ago, he retired, seemingly hanging his apron up for good. But John Kim said his father never got used to retirement, and decided to get back into business.

Thinking that a convenience store would let the Kims slow down, the family opened the Cost Mart in Forest Grove in 2004.

However, Kug Joo Kim again couldn't stay out of the kitchen, so the family decided to convert the Cost Mart several months ago. Eyeing Pacific University's throngs of students looking for a cheap lunch, the Kims figured sushi might fit the bill.

They liked the prospects of young college students coming to find their low prices and large portions.

'When we sold cigarettes and beer, we sold at the lowest prices to keep our neighbors happy. Now we are doing the same with our food,' added John Kim.

The Kims are already building on their success by making local connections to help them gain a foothold in the community. John Kim is currently waiting on his first delivery of saké from local sakéry SakéOne.

This is not the first time the Kims have run a family friendly, neighborhood deli. They operated the popular Swan Mart on Southwest Barber Boulevard in Portland for eight years.

In August of 2001, the Kims were all over the local news when their landlord struck a deal with 7-Eleven to move in when the Kim's lease expired.

After Willamette Week newspaper took up the Kims' cause, the local neighborhood association adopted a resolution opposing the landlord's plans, and 'Save the Swan' posters littered Barbur Boulevard. 'That really was an example of what the power of the people can do,' said John Kim. 'We are so thankful for our neighbors, we owe everything to them.'

This time around, the Kims hope to rekindle that neighborhood spirit in Forest Grove.