The SoDo grocery store where shopping is a passion, not a chore

Bulk spices at PFI are ideal for wholesale buyers in restaurants, though home cooks are welcome to weigh and fill up containers and bags for their home kitchens, as well. (Photo by Anna Goren)

If your mission is to stock up on those specialty items from your grandmother’s kitchen, or hard-to-find foods you tried on your world travels, you may want to pay a visit to PFI.

Haven’t heard of the place? That’s not surprising. It’s tucked in a strange corner under the freeway in SoDo, barely noticeable to the unassuming passerby.

But to the Italian grandpa and hipster chefs alike, Pacific Food Importers, affectionately known as “Big John’s,” is a mainstay in our city’s food scene.

And really, any place with a cheese library is a place you can find me recreationally grocery shopping.

Located a stone’s throw from Uwajimaya, Big John’s is a lone wolf in a sea of popular Asian groceries. Worth the destination visit, it is the place in Seattle to find everything you weren’t looking for: chestnut butter in a tube, tubs of marmite, Italian artichoke liqueur, a barrel of Spanish smoked paprika, Danish chocolate sprinkles meant for melting on toast, and over 100 varieties of cheeses from around the world.

Started by John Croce in 1971 out of the back of his car, PFI began as a small enterprise importing and selling olives and feta cheeses to Greek restaurants around Seattle. Word spread quickly that John had the best Mediterranean delicacies in town, and soon people from Italian, Greek, and Jewish-Sephardic communities in Seattle began going to him for their own personal groceries, at a time when imported foods were much harder to come by.

Lennu Luzzi and his band serenade John Croce (left) with familiar Italian songs during his 90th birthday celebration in the store. (Photo by Anna Goren)
Lennu Luzzi and his band serenade John Croce (left) with familiar Italian songs during his 90th birthday celebration in the store. (Photo by Anna Goren)

Today, PFI is a destination for both restaurants and families looking to stock their kitchens with meaningful and delicious foods from around the world.

Croce was raised in an Italian family in an area of Rainier Valley known as the ‘garlic gulch,’ where Italian-Americans flocked from the turn of the century, attracted to the area by coal mining. Like many that came before and afterward, this wave of immigration brought with it the rural and farming knowledge from the Mediterranean — many Italian families like John’s were known for their green thumbs, and went on to own produce stands and restaurants.

Croce was an organic gardener before the word was in common use. He still gives out gardening advice to those lucky enough to catch him at the store, which now managed by his children.

But in an industry that is risky to begin with, small grocers have a hard time keeping up with the larger grocery chains that take advantage of massive infrastructure and corporate consolidation to cut costs. Smaller stores need to rely on a dedicated following to survive, the kind of crowd that is only cultivated by what is lacking in the grocery business at large: an actual love of food and family.

That is exactly what Big John’s specializes in — well, that and cheese.

Customers line up at the 'Cheese Library', boasting hundreds of rotating bulk cheeses from around the world. (Photo by Anna Goren)
Customers line up at the ‘Cheese Library’, boasting hundreds of rotating bulk cheeses from around the world. (Photo by Anna Goren)

This past weekend, John celebrated his 90th birthday by holding court with his wife Rose in the Scandanavian sweets section at the store’s annual ‘customer appreciation day’. With an always-replenishing, home-cooked spread of Italian delicacies, wine flowing, and a live band, the event made the free samples at Costco seem like child’s play.

Friends of the Croce family and of the store packed into the warehouse to eat, drink, offer John their well-wishes (and do a little shopping).

The store itself speaks volumes about Croce and his family’s character. Customers enter to a hand-scrawled sign that reads a quote from Sophia Lauren, “Everything you see, I owe to Spaghetti”. Glass jars of Italian penny candies line the checkout counter, where a giant whiteboard shows the constantly rotating list of recent imports and specials.

Personal touches — hand-drawn labels, cooking tips, and photos decorate the small warehouse, separated by items: cheese, condiments, spices, candies, and drinks from around the globe. Customers are invited to bring their own jars and receptacles to the bulk section, where bins stacked with spices, olives, and more varieties of feta than I ever knew existed, await.

A customer reaches for a jar of baba cakes — a rum cake originally of Polish origin, now found widely in Germany and France. It is named for the colloquial Slavic term for grandmother, 'baba.' (Photo by Anna Goren)
A customer reaches for a jar of baba cakes — a rum cake originally of Polish origin, now found widely in Germany and France. It is named for the colloquial Slavic term for grandmother, ‘baba.’ (Photo by Anna Goren)

Buyers at PFI make a point to stock global items that are hard to find elsewhere in the city, leading the store to expand to lines of British, Germanic, and Scandanavian foods when loyal customers — drawn to the Mediterranean offerings for nostalgic or culinary reasons — began asking for more.

Earlier this year, management invested in an expanded refrigerator in the cheese section to house a selection of imported butters, the only of its kind in Seattle.

“Once you have that French butter — it’s hard to go back!” exclaimed Kathy, one of John’s daughters who currently runs the store with her sister and brother.

For some, grocery shopping is a chore. Big John’s focus on family and knowledge of international food treasures make it a delight. I plan to keep going back.

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