Ken came to the US from Xian, China, at 19 years old, landing in Bellevue. Now he’s the owner of a thriving Asian grocery business, Asian Food Center, a destination market for a ‘taste of home’ with three locations in the Pacific Northwest—Bellevue, Seattle, and Beaverton, Oregon.
Asian Food Center caters to a wide clientele that ranges from international students to Europeans looking for ingredients they can’t find elsewhere. The stores are beautiful with ambient lighting, enticing merchandising, and signage in English and Mandarin. Entire rows are dedicated to soy and chili sauces—the taste of home Ken refers to. A key ingredient in all Asian cooking, soy sauce flavors vary by region and even by town; by stocking an extensive variety of brands, Ken builds loyalty among customers who can’t find their flavor anywhere else.
Ken started his business at just 21 in 2007. With no Asian markets in the Bellevue vicinity, he drove lengthy distances to find ingredients he needed for favorite dishes, or he’d order online and had to wait for a package from overseas. Our Northwest traffic was frustrating; when his mom, who’s now a partner in the business, suggested he open a store of his own, he wrote a business proposal, got a loan, and did just that.
The learning curve was huge, and he says he’s still learning—something he gives Seattle Credit Union kudos for. With several accounts at the credit union, he’s found partners in his lenders who help him with financial advice and to quickly resolve issues—a relationship he says he didn’t have with a previous bank.
He prides himself on knowing what’s “hot” among his customers, particularly among the younger customers who still have ties to China and don’t want “old fashioned” products.
In addition to the soy and chili sauces, his inventory includes a huge array of Asian snacks and noodles, a full fish market with live and unusual fish—like Cabezon, something customers may not find anywhere else in the Northwest. Most of his packaged products are imported from Asia, guaranteeing the authentic and familiar flavors many of his customers are looking for. He also carries a wide variety of organic products and all natural pork.
Like other Asian markets, he stocks a variety of cookware, a full line of spirits and teas, and has a hot food bar. Customers will find restaurants and other service providers within or at the entrance of each store.
While success wasn’t immediate, Ken now has an estimated 150 employees between his three stores. Most of his customers are individuals and families, with the occasional restaurant purchasing a special ingredient for a distinct flavor. His goal is to open another Seattle-area store, likely in the south end to form a triangle of stores, and then offer home delivery. For now, though, he’s happy to be the ‘go-to’ for anyone looking for unusual, specialty, and quality Asian foods.