Customers are Community for Japanese grocery shop manager

Yoshio Tanabe, 60, restocks the shelves at Hana Market on U Street in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 2013. Tanabe orders items by customer request to fill the shelves at the small grocery store. (American Observer/Laura D’Alessandro)

By Laura D’Alessandro

When Yoshio Tanabe’s customers are happy, so is he. The 60-year-old Japanese immigrant manages Hana Market, a Japanese grocery store on U Street in Washington, D.C.

The cramped shop, which also houses a travel agency, stocks every ingredient to make homemade sushi. Hana also sells the ever-popular mochi ice cream, as well as ingredients American shoppers may not be so familiar with — pickled plums, fresh Japanese herbs and Aloe juice.

Tanabe has been working in customer service since he moved to the U.S. from Kochi, Japan in 1975. Fresh out of school, Tanabe came to Washington to work in a restaurant where a former schoolmate was working: Japan Inc. in Georgetown.

Nearly everyone else who worked in the restaurant was Japanese, too, Tanabe said.

Tanabe worked with many other students from Japan in the restaurant business, and he noticed the district was full of Asian immigrants, he said. He and other Japanese immigrants would gather at the embassy to play traditional games. It was there that he met his wife, who runs the travel agency at Hana Market.

But much in the capital city has changed since then.

The restaurant where Tanabe worked for 30 years is closed. Much of the immigrant population has moved to outlying suburbs. And today, Hana Market is the only dedicated Asian grocery store within the city limits, according to Tanabe and many of D.C.’s food bloggers.

Despite the city’s thinning Japanese population, there are plenty of their former countrymen who hope to follow their path to America. A recent Gallup poll puts current Japanese residents among the top 10 populations most likely to migrate to the U.S. The figures show four million Japanese citizens hope to make the journey.

Data from the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau shows D.C. is losing its diversity at a rapid pace. As many non-white residents leave the city limits, so do their ethnic grocery stores.

Many of the region’s major Asian grocery stores are now located in D.C. suburbs such as Annandale, Va., and Wheaton, Md.

Tanabe wanted to go against the flow, so Japanese people in the city would have options that made them feel at home.

After his 30 years at a Japanese restaurant, Tanabe’s wife wanted him to take over the space where her travel business was located and transition it to a restaurant. But looking at the space, Tanabe said, it just wasn’t going to happen. Instead he would sell food directly to customers.

In 2007, as he began working on plans to open Hana Market inside the city borders, he visited the owners of those suburban megamarts to ask for advice. He heard the same advice from owners of larger Asian grocery stores over and over again: Only stock a few, easy-to-sell things.

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Hana Market, an unsuspecting treasure trove of traditional Japanese ingredients, is quiet on the afternoon of April 8, 2013 (left). Yoshio Tanabe, 60, answers the telephone at Hana Market on U Street in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 2013 (right). Two desks remaining from the travel business run by his wife are crowded into the back corners of the packed-to-the-gills shop. (American Observer/Laura D’Alessandro)

With such a small space, Tanabe said, it didn’t seem like a bad strategy, so that’s what he did, carefully selecting items he knew would be items integral to traditional Japanese cuisine.

Tanabe recalls when the shop transitioned from booking travel to selling Japanese groceries in 2007, there were still a few other Asian grocers in the district. Now customers come in and tell him he’s the only one, and they’re surprised to find what the small, unassuming storefront beholds.

But there’s more than singularity that makes the store unique. There’s also Tanabe’s eagerness to please his customers.

“We have one policy,” he said. “If you don’t like it, we pay you back.”

Not only does he guarantee all the products he sells, he also takes customer feedback and requests. Much of his inventory is now made up of items customers expect, and not all of them are Japanese.

As the only Asian grocer in DC, Tanabe stocks some Thai and Chinese products that his customers have asked for.

Other Asian grocers in the area chase profits, Tanabe said, but not him.

“If the customer’s happy, I’m happy,” he said.

About this article

I’ve said this in a lot of situations throughout my graduate school tenure, but its repetition is apt in this case: “Hi, my name is Laura, and I’m a foodie.”

Intent on working food writing into my final pieces for graduate school, I came to Jody’s class with a list of ideas for food stories related to demographics. When we later narrowed the focus of our issue to immigrants in D.C., I knew I’d be finding an immigrant through food.

I’ve been shopping at Hana Market on 17th and U Streets in D.C. since I moved here in 2010. I always shopped at the local Asian markets in my hometown before I came to D.C.

I hail from a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — not an area one would expect to be the most ethnically diverse. I came to D.C. expecting to find ethnic markets on every corner and bounties of traditional foods for me to cook with.

Boy was I wrong.

Instead, I found what the U.S. Census Bureau reported from the 2010 Census: D.C. is getting whiter. And as part of that trend, the grocery stores that serve ethnic communities have closed their doors. I learned more about this when, after surreptitiously shopping in his store for nearly 3 years, I spent an entire day with Yoshio Tanabe.

I spent so much time there, in fact, that before I left that day I was showing a customer where the rice cakes were. Tanabe couldn’t remember. He said he’d hire me but I didn’t meet the age limit — everyone who works there is at least 60, he said.

Maybe when I’m older.

I am a multimedia journalist and editor. I edit multimedia for a trade association and think about food the rest of the time.