Viet Wah Supermarket on MLK closed due to rent hike

Viet Wah Superfoods on MLK was mostly quiet a few days after it was closed for good last week. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Viet Wah Superfoods on MLK was mostly quiet a few days after it was closed for good last week. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

The owner of Viet Wah Superfoods says rising rents forced him to close down the Rainier Valley location of his Asian supermarket chain last week.

According to Duc T. Tran owner and chairman of Viet Wah Group, a 20% increase in rent meant the supermarket on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at South Graham St. would no longer be profitable.

Tran said he knew had to close Viet Wah Superfoods about a month ago, after a year-long negotiations with the property owner for a new lease didn’t materialize.

A notice posted on the Viet Wah Superfoods Facebook page on Friday, August 7, announced that the last day of business would be the following Sunday. The same notice is still taped to the store entrance.

“We were trying to work it out to stay.” Tran said, “The lease is up and they want to increase the rent so we can not afford [it].”

Many customers, myself included, relied on the store for good prices, a wide variety of items not available elsewhere, and a convenient location.

Ouch! They were my main source of reasonably priced groceries,” commented one customer on the store’s Facebook page. Other customers were less verbose, posting reactions like, “OMG WTF!!!!!” “Boo” and frowning emoticons.

Most of my own memories of the store — which was just a few blocks away from my old apartment — were of excellent customer service. And by that I mean that I sometimes got free stuff. On more than one occasion when I was short on money to pay for purchases, the cashiers let me keep a couple dollars worth of items.

They also didn’t seem to mind when we neighborhood residents without cars used the carts to take our groceries home. They’d come by and pick the carts back up in a truck every week or so.

The Ge’ez script reading “ሱፐር ማርኬት” or “supermarket” on the Viet Wah awning also seemed a welcome recognition of the Habesha community that live around the neighborhood. The awning also had Tagalog, Khmer, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Duc T. Tran chairman of Viet Wah Group was telling customers in person that that his store closed.(Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Duc T. Tran chairman of Viet Wah Group was telling customers in person that that his store closed.(Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

Tran’s customer-oriented attitude was on display when I stopped by the store last Thursday to find out more about the closure.

“I think it’s okay….we have other places.” he said, referring to Viet Wah’s other branches. “I know it’s a big loss for the customer around here because [it was] convenient.”

He was standing outside explaining the closure to customers who’d showed up expecting to shop. During the roughly twenty minutes I was there, I saw many East African, Asian and white people turned away, surprised with closure. Most I chatted with were incredulous.

“It’s mix population here. All different kind of people, it’s good.” Tran said of his customers.

The 98118 zip code where Viet Wah was located is celebrated by many Seattleites as the most diverse in the country.

Viet Wah’s two other locations, on Jackson St near the International District and off of Sunset Blvd. in Renton, are pretty far afield for Rainier Valley shoppers to take advantage of. The nearest supermarket is the Safeway a little less than a mile down MLK at S Othello St.

Tran suggested Seattle Supermarket on Beacon Hill if you’re looking for a nearby grocery store with mostly Asian food like Viet Wah carried.

“We’re sorry but you know… we appreciate all the customers, 15 years now,” Tran said, laughing apologetically. He added that it just didn’t make sense from the business standpoint to continue working so hard to run the store while losing money because of high rent.

The notice posted on the doors of Viet Wah Superfoods on MLK, explaining that the store would be permanently closed. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
The notice posted on the doors of Viet Wah Superfoods on MLK, explaining that the store would be permanently closed. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

According to county records, the property is owned by Paul and Mei-Yea Liao, who own a number of other properties in the Chinatown/International District and are known for local philanthropy.King County’s assessment of the value of the property jumped over 40% in the last year, an increase that will factor into taxes due on the property next year.

A commercial appraiser we reached at the King County Department of Assessments described the large four acre commercial parcel, which also includes a number of restaurants and a furniture store as “under-improved,” suggesting that there was potential for larger buildings to be constructed there.

The Liao family did not yet return requests for comment about the rent hike or what they plan to do with the property.

According to North West Asian Weekly,  Mr. Tran, who is Vietnamese-Chinese came to the U.S. as a boat refugee from the Vietnam War, who started his first grocery store on Jackson street in 1980.

But it seems that even a “model-minority”-owned business like Viet Wah doesn’t have an answer for the rising rents and shifting business environment around the city.

“We are losing money because money mostly goes to the rent.” Tran said, explaining that he would have gladly kept the business running in the same location if the rent had not increased.

“I feel sad because we lost the lease… We will probably move out to where the rent is cheaper,” he said, presumably alluding to moving further south.

But he said if he can get cheaper rent somewhere else around the same neighborhood, he might open up a new branch there so as not to lose local customers.

“Thank you for all the support from the community here. We still have two stores to operate,” he said, noting that he hopes customers will continue to patronize his other stores.

Personally, my time as a customer at Viet Wah was pretty short, and I myself have moved further south. But I’m still not so happy about its closure. I have a lot of memories from that short time. As one customer commented on the Facebook page that that with the store closing, “childhood is gone.”

What do you think of Viet Wah Superfoods closing? Let us know on the SEA Change Map.

Alex Stonehill contributed reporting to this post.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article estimated the 2016 property taxes for the parcel that includes Viet Wah Superfoods at “something like $112,000.” It’s not possible to accurately calculate the 2016 taxes yet because the tax rate hasn’t been set.  

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