Bodegas Without Borders

Uwajimaya’s Kai Market, 365 by Whole Foods, and the State of Seattle Grocery Stores

These new market spin-offs are a window into how the city actually eats.

By Allecia Vermillion March 20, 2017 Published in the April 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Big specialty grocers like Uwajimaya are turning to smaller store formats to respond to hurried Seattle lifestyles.

When Kai Market opens at Fairview and Republican, most likely in late April, the first sight to greet customers will be a cluster of seafood tanks, their waters stacked with live crabs and oysters and clams. Beyond that, the vividly tidy rows of salmon and cod fillets and sashimi-grade maguro and hamachi that fill the seafood counter.

Live crabs and highest-end raw tuna aren’t exactly common in smaller convenience markets. But it’s a visual clue that this South Lake Union newcomer is kin to Uwajimaya, the Asian supermarket that put down roots in the International District after World War II and has grown into a regional institution, not to mention one of this town’s favorite places to buy fish.

It wasn’t lost on the Moriguchi family—which has run Uwajimaya for three generations—that this space looks more like a stunning restaurant than a store. The latter usually implies dropped ceilings and zero natural light, certainly not this soaring 29-foot-tall space in the new 400 Fairview building, its clerestory windows a snapshot of the gleaming buildings all around, the newly formed edge of a newly formed neighborhood. 

The Moriguchis contemplated a boutique market for years, but its journey to reality was guided by members of the ascendant third generation, headed by Denise Moriguchi, who took over as CEO in February. Kai Market represents the decisions of this new leadership, but also a reflection of Seattle’s own evolving relationship with grocery stores.

More compact markets are a no-brainer in dense areas like Pioneer Square or pockets of Capitol Hill where supermarket-size spaces are rare. But no matter the neighborhood, “People are changing their habits to takeout foods and ready-to-eat foods,” says Miye Moriguchi, who oversees development for the family business. “It’s a very different way of operating.”

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Denise Moriguchi took over as CEO of Uwajimaya this year. Her family has operated the landmark local grocery chain for three generations.

Seattle’s workforce charges particularly hard these days; those long hours shape how we eat. At Kai Market, ready-made dishes (with a strong resemblance to some favorites over at Uwajimaya’s deli) take center stage. Beyond all that fresh seafood, a counter dispenses poke, bento boxes, sushi, noodle bowls, and roast duck or simple grilled fish over rice. A window-walled seating area offers a quick moment of respite, though never too far from the boss’s Slack summons.

The lengthy workdays that come standard within South Lake Union’s newly minted office towers merit something more exciting than a sad homemade turkey sandwich at midday, and leave little time for scratch cooking at night. But in a town that takes food this seriously, even office-bound lunches and rote Tuesday night dinners need to be compelling. And high quality, in keeping with our myriad individual philosophies of what’s healthy. 

This lifestyle has recast our newest markets to become as much a destination for ready-made meals as ingredients to assemble something ourselves. Just ask Tom Douglas, who has repeatedly amped up ready-to-eat lunch options at his Home Remedy market ever since 2013. Or PCC and Met Market, which seem to add more prepared food and eat-in spaces with each store remodel. The line between restaurant and grocery store has become awfully fuzzy.

Kai Market is 5,500 square feet—about one-eighth the size of an Uwajimaya—so its grocery selection won’t be as vast as at the mother ship: mostly the sort of snacks office workers might crave midafternoon or items, like lemons or soy sauce, that turn purchases from the seafood counter into a proper meal. 

Whole Foods was thinking along those same lines. In 2016, the glossy Gwyneth Paltrow of mindful grocery chains launched 365, its own spin-off market. The Bellevue Square location is just the third in the country, more suburban than Kai Market, but surrounded by a similar density of intensely busy professionals, not to mention mall shoppers. 

Customers descend an escalator straight from the mall (there’s also a small parking lot) to ’90s alternative anthems and convenience groceries (zucchini noodles! butternut squash noodles! vegetable-medley noodles!) and produce heaped in cardboard boxes. There are alternative milks for days and frozen pizzas for every dietary restriction. More self-serve technology and fewer niceties than your typical Whole Foods, like full-service butcher counters or cheesemongers, are reflected in lower prices. But prepared foods are the heart of the place, from wraps, salads, sushi, and pop-it-in-the-oven pasta dishes to Whole Foods’ signature expansive salad bar and a United Nations of soups like chicken tonkotsu and West African peanut. Perky kiosks let customers order pizza slices, tricked-out hot dogs, or jackfruit taco bowls. It’s a place, in the words of Whole Foods spokesperson Kate Neu, where customers “get in and out of there, grab their weekly staples, and grab something easy for dinner that night.” 

Uwajimaya was nearly two decades ahead of the restaurant-grocer trend when the flagship debuted its food court in 2000, something common in Asia but less so here. That was the brainchild of Denise Moriguchi’s father and his siblings, including Tomoko Moriguchi Matsuno, Denise’s aunt and immediate predecessor as CEO. The third generation is leading the storied grocer down a new path with fewer actual groceries, but Uwajimaya’s current leader says her family’s elders are behind them all the way: “Our aunt says she’s going to be down there cashiering when it opens.”

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