All photos by Rodrigo DeMedeiros

Denise Moriguchi believes her late grandfather would approve of what Uwajimaya has become in the 93 years since he began selling fishcakes and other Japanese foodstuffs to Japanese laborers out of the back of his truck in Tacoma in 1928. Those were humble beginnings for the Asian grocery chain, the first store of which Japanese native Fujimatsu Moriguchi would open that year on Broadway in Tacoma and soon thereafter run with his wife, Sadako. They laid the foundation for a business that today includes a newly completed $10 million-plus remodel of the flagship market in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, plus markets in Bellevue; Renton; and Beaverton, Oregon.

The future could include more Eastside presence.

While Denise Moriguchi, president and CEO of Uwajimaya Inc., never met her grandfather, who died before she was born, she knows his story: that he set out to broaden the store’s reach beyond Japanese customers in 1962, when he set up a booth at the Century 21 Exposition, aka the Seattle World’s Fair. That event drew an estimated 10 million visitors during its six-month run. Unfortunately, Fujimatsu died that summer. Sadako, also a fixture in the business after their marriage in 1932 and described on the company website as a pillar of Uwajimaya and the Moriguchi family, died in 2002.

“I always think that his vision was beyond just Japanese — it was really that Pan-Asian, sharing Japanese food, Asian food, with people that weren’t as familiar with it,” said Moriguchi. “So I think if he saw the store (today), he would be really pleased that we’re actually doing that and how broad our customer base is and how broad our product mix is — so I think he would be amazed and proud.”

Moriguchi chuckles, though, that he also might be surprised, from a patriarchal Japanese perspective, that his youngest daughter, Tomoko Moriguchi-Matsuno, Moriguchi’s aunt, ran the company from 2007–17, following Denise Moriguchi’s father, Tomio Moriguchi, who was CEO from 1965–2007. And also that his granddaughter is now running it. Moriguchi, 44, is entering her fifth year at the helm this month.

“I wonder what he would think about that, but I think he would support it,” she said.

Moriguchi grew up working in the Seattle store. She graduated Bowdoin College in Maine in 1998, worked at a Boston consulting firm, got her MBA at MIT in 2007, worked at Bayer HealthCare’s over-the-counter division until 2013, and became marketing director at Uwajimaya that spring before becoming vice president-marketing and strategic planning, then vice president-chief financial officer, and then president. She added the CEO title in February 2017.

She now oversees a company with about 500 employees (about 175 of those at the Eastside stores) and roughly $150 million in revenue last year. The company also includes Kai Market in the South Lake Union neighborhood, Food Service International wholesale food provider, and the 125-unit Publix apartments near the Seattle store. Kai Market — billed on its Facebook page as a boutique Asian market with a specially curated selection of fresh seafood, bento boxes, poke bowls, musubi, and more — has been temporarily closed since April due to the pandemic and a sharp decline in office workers. We caught up with Moriguchi, who lives on Mercer Island, in early December. First, an important matter: We asked for the definitive pronunciation of “Uwajimaya.”

Moriguchi responded by emailing an advertisement that ran in our sister magazine, 425, with the headline: Oo-wah-jee-mah-yah. “As unique as our name,” the ad said. The name combines the hometown of Moriguchi’s grandfather, Uwajima, with “ya,” meaning “store” in Japanese. Moriguchi noted the name’s challenging pronunciation in a winter 2019 article in Bowdoin Magazine when explaining how Kai Market, which opened in 2017, was named. One impetus “came from watching an interview on TV of former Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett, who replied when asked what he liked to make his kids for dinner, ‘Wagyu steak from Ujimama,’” the story said, adding, “Bennett’s mispronunciation is a testament to Uwajimaya’s brand strength, that you immediately knew exactly what store he meant — what else could it be?”

The first Uwajimaya that opened 93 years ago in Tacoma was at 1512 Broadway, then moved to 1502 Broadway in 1936. The family was shipped to an internment camp in Tule Lake, California, in 1942 during World War II. Upon returning to the Northwest in 1945, Fujimatsu Moriguchi reopened Uwajimaya in Seattle upon hearing that’s where most Japanese were moving, Denise Moriguchi said. That store moved twice before settling at its current location in 2000.

The Bellevue store opened in the Crossroads area in 1978 and moved to its current location, at 699 120th Ave. N.E. (next to Total Wine & More), in 2011. Beaverton opened in 1998, and Renton in 2009. The stores include gifts and other features, plus sub-tenants running small stores within Uwajimaya. The Renton store has only one inside, bubble tea shop Oasis.

What are you most proud of accomplishing in the four years that you’ve been CEO?

There’s two main things that I’m really proud of. First is putting together … my leadership team. I feel really strong about putting together the brains in the areas that I’m lacking … having a strong team and having that team come together — it’s taken time, but now I feel really good about that.

The second piece is completing our Seattle store remodel. While it was one store in one location, I think that was really a culmination of thinking about: Who is Uwajimaya as a brand? What are we trying to do? What do we want our experience to be like? What products do we want to emphasize? Kind of all that thinking put into a physical manifestation of the Seattle store remodel, but it really is the culmination of a lot of thinking in the future of where our company is headed.

You had talked a couple years ago about wanting to modernize Uwajimaya operations in balance with its history and culture. It sounds like the new Seattle market embodies that.

Exactly. It wasn’t just putting up new refrigeration and new paint; it was really like thinking about our customers and our future and how we want to be today and tomorrow, and honoring the past. I think it was really kind of the first expression … of the direction and some of the changes we were making.

What’s the feature you’re most proud of in that store?

There’s a few of them, but I think the one that I really like is our new sashimi and poke bar. It’s a product that we’ve always carried … but it’s just really highlighted and featured in a new way. … I think the architects did a beautiful job in designing the space to really elevate an everyday product.

And the store’s been enhanced in other ways …

Yeah, we may have expanded our offerings, like the meat department and deli, but I think it’s just really about better grouping and displaying and showcasing to the customer. The checkout was kind of in the middle of the store … it was kind of confusing. We moved our checkout so it’s very clear when you exit … so it creates a much better flow. And then … when you walk in, you can see all the way to the other end, and you can see where things are better — and so we really focused on just customer flow and placement, and grouping and highlighting certain categories together.

What would you most like to accomplish in this new year?

Surviving all the craziness that’s around right now with COVID. Making sure that our employees and customers continue to be safe and healthy. Beyond that … we continue to really just build on our foundation, put a little bit more structure and processes in place with the longer-term goals — so maybe a few years out … having kind of everything in place that we can continue to grow stores.

Would your next expansion be another store in the Puget Sound region, or would it be another store in Oregon?

We haven’t confirmed anything, but I think there is room for growth in both Puget Sound and potentially Oregon.

Perhaps another Eastside location?

Another Eastside location would be one of our kind of key places we would look at. The Eastside is growing. Our Bellevue store, the parking lot gets full and so I definitely think that that would be one of the first places we would look.

So it sounds like an Eastside expansion is atop your wish list?

Yeah.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your role as CEO?

I think it’s taking a company that’s been successful for 92 years and bringing change when things have been done and done well. Sometimes there’s kind of a question or maybe a little bit of resistance to why you might want to change something. So it’s really just honoring the past while continuing to adapt and evolve for the future, and kind of really helping everyone come along and support that change and that vision, especially when we have such long-tenured people who’ve been here 20, 30, 40 years, and they’ve done it a certain way, and they’ve been successful in doing it that way.

How many family members are involved in the business?

The second generation is supportive, but they’re not in the day-to-day operations, so they’re always there when we need help or if we have questions, but they more or less handed the reins to the third generation. Of the third generation, I have five cousins that I work with and three of their spouses. So there’s eight kind of our third generation, plus myself. (Two spouses of the second generation work in the company, but not in managerial roles, and one second-generation family member is on the board.)

Traditionally, the grocery business is competitive and low-margin. What’s it like in the Asian market niche?

I would say it’s just as competitive and low-margin as regular grocery, with the added challenge of shorter shelf life. There sometimes are more difficult supply-chain challenges. We have to get things through our distributors, but they’re coming from overseas.

How much of your inventory comes from overseas?

Our best estimate is 60 to 70 percent. Mostly from Japan? A lot coming from Japan, (plus) other Asian countries, China, Korea, Thailand — just depends on what the product is. We try to be Pan-Asian, not just Japanese. Then the other thing is … being Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of local things, so I always kind of joke you could make an Italian meal (with) our fresh seafood, our salmon; it doesn’t have to be Japanese or Asian … you can make Pacific Northwest cuisine. We have someone who’s Italian, they’re like, “Oh, you’re the only place I can get fresh octopus,” because it’s something that they like to use in their cuisine. …

How has the pandemic affected business?

For sales, it’s interesting. We have stores in different locations and different types of … customers that we serve. Kai Market is in the heart of South Lake Union, with office workers being our key customers, so we have closed it just because the volume was not there. For our more residential and suburban stores — so Bellevue, Renton, Beaverton — we’ve seen strong growth just as I think people eat at home more, they’re shopping closer to their house. So we’ve been fortunate there to see sales increase. And then our Seattle store, we were going through the remodel, so … some people were shying away, and then we lost office workers, tourists, sports fans, people that just come to the neighborhood to eat, so that store has seen softer sales. Some stores are up, some stores are down, and so it’s been nice to have kind of that portfolio of different sizes and locations.

Is there a time frame to reopen Kai Market?

I think once the vaccine (is available) and then we see people kind of going back to work in that area.

What is most satisfying about operating on the Eastside?

One thing I really like about the Eastside is the diversity. I hear more languages when I’m in the store. I’ve had friends say, “Oh my gosh; I was shopping at your Bellevue store, and the social distancing COVID (safety announcement) came on in my home language, and I just felt very comforted.” So I feel like there’s a lot of people on the Eastside that we connect with … they feel that connection to where they might have come from.

You worked on the East Coast after college. Did you come back from the East Coast intending to join your family business?

I was living in Canada at the time … (she had moved to Toronto for work and to be with her future husband, Rob Vong, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Canada, and where their daughter was later born) looking to move home and be closer to family, and that was around the time that my aunt had said that she was looking to retire and they were interested in identifying the next CEO, and so the timing seemed right. I didn’t necessarily move back with the job in hand, but it seemed like the stars were aligning, and so for personal reasons and because of the potential opportunity to take this position, I moved back.

You were in marketing at the business and then CFO before CEO, correct?

Right. Our CFO had retired … and it was actually a really good opportunity for me to dive more into the numbers. … I’m not a strong finance person, (but) I definitely understand the business better after that role.

What’s your husband do?

He stays home with our kids (boy, 6, and girl, 8). … I don’t think he ever thought he would be a stay-at-home dad (he worked at a bank before moving to the States), but he definitely embraced it. And it’s been very valuable for everyone in the family.

Do you oversee the wholesale food business and the apartments, too?

At a super high level, the wholesale a little bit more. The apartments, we are a majority owner, but we are not the sole owner. …

Who does the wholesale division sell to?

Primarily restaurants (and to Uwajimaya).

How’d your family get involved in the apartments?

In the ’70s, we purchased the property of our old Uwajimaya store, and we had to purchase the Publix as well, which is an historic building. … It was kind of a package deal. It was a single-room occupancy hotel and historic, so there was a lot of restrictions of what you could do in terms of development. … We finally had the opportunity to develop it in 2017 (at a cost of $24 million). … It’s a really nice product. …

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Having two young children, it’s just spending a lot of time with them when I’m home … going on a bike ride with them or going swimming with them. I lead my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, so on the weekends when I have downtime, it’s really about family time. My daughter, we like to bake together.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One thing that differentiates Uwajimaya, I think, is our commitment to the community — just being part of the community, the local community. So I acknowledge that and then just thank our customers in the community for supporting us. I do feel like we have so many loyal customers who really just support us because we’re local, we’re family-owned, we’ve been around for a long time — so I appreciate that.