We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 10.
In this episode of Working, Slate’s Rachel E. Gross talks to Ikuyo and Yoshio Tanabe about the grocery store they own and run in Washington, D.C. Located on the cusp of the U Street Corridor, Hana Japanese Market, which started as a travel agency, is one of the only Asian grocery stores in all of D.C. How does this little store handle the Japanese culinary demands of an entire city? In this edition of Working, the couple behind the business shares the story of how Hana grew to be one of the most iconic markets in the District.
To learn more about Slate’s Working podcast, click here.
This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Rachel Gross: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Rachel Gross, a writer for Slate who covers science and food. For this week’s episode of Working, we’re talking with Ikuyo and Yoshio Tanabe, a married couple who run one of D.C.’s most iconic Asian markets. And in a Slate Plus extra, Ikuyo talks about what it’s like to run a travel agency out of the back of a supermarket.
Can you tell us your names and what you do?
Yoshio Tanabe: Yoshio Tanabe. I’m a manager.
Ikuyo Tanabe: I’m Ikuyo Tanabe. I am a, I guess, helper.
Rachel: Well, technically you’re his boss, right?
Ikuyo: Well, you know, we are a company here.
Rachel: And what’s that company?
Ikuyo: It’s called Galaxy Systems.
Rachel: And you run both a travel agency and a market? Can you tell us a little bit about what the market is?
Ikuyo: It’s a Japanese groceries. But we do carry different Asian groceries too, like Chinese, Korean, and Thai. Thai and Malaysia, Vietnam.
Rachel: And the name of the grocery is?
Ikuyo: Hana Market.
Rachel: And does Hana mean anything in Japanese?
Rachel: That’s what I heard. I also heard nose though.
Ikuyo: Oh, yes.
Rachel: Which is kind of similar.
Ikuyo: Yes, can be. Yeah.
Rachel: Do you both work on the grocery store side as well? Or do you split the business completely? Ikuyo, do you do only travel agency stuff?
Ikuyo: No, no, no, no. I help. Yeah. We have lots to do. Especially going to the market to buy stuff. It’s a lot of work. So, I help with that too.
Rachel: So, how do you split up the duties?
Ikuyo: It depends how busy we are. You know, on Thursday, we get lots of merchandise from New York. Lots of wholesalers. We get about five wholesalers coming in on Thursday.
Yoshio: We do not have a set schedule. Because we’re open seven days, 10 to 8. I couldn’t remember if each day the time were different. So, I made it easy. Ten to 8. That’s it. Every day, 10 to 8.
Rachel: On Monday morning, what is the first thing that you would do when you get in the store?
Ikuyo: I usually check what’s missing and what we need.
Yoshio: He usually does that, not Monday morning but the Sunday night when we close. Then he checks what’s been sold and what’s needed.
Rachel: So, Sunday night you check what’s missing, and then?
Yoshio: Then we have to order it.
Rachel: To order it from?
Yoshio: Order from different—
Ikuyo: Different companies, distributors.
Yoshio: Many, many distributors.
Ikuyo: Seven wholesalers.
Ikuyo: Sellers we have to order. So, he does it every day, those orders.
Rachel: How long does that take you? In the morning when you’re making those orders, how long does it take you?
Yoshio: No, not only one day! You couldn’t finish it. So, actually Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Three. Three nights. Total, about 12 hours.
Rachel: Twelve hours to make all the orders for the week?
Yoshio: Every week. Yeah.
Rachel: Ah, for the week. OK.
Ikuyo: Yeah. Every day of the week, different companies come.
Rachel: Right. OK. So, making the orders is a big part of your week, is a big chunk. What else do you do throughout the day at the store?
Yoshio: We prepare the meat and vegetables.
Rachel: Do you cut up the meat and package it?
Yoshio: No. We get the meat cut.
Ikuyo: We have to repack them.
Yoshio: Right. And anyway, what takes the most is the vegetables. Almost every day. At least four or five times we have to go to get vegetables, because we don’t have enough space to keep them.
Ikuyo: Yeah. That’s a problem. The small store. He has to reshelve them too. You know, the shelves get empty. Through the back. You have to bring the stuff and reshelve them.
Rachel: So, you’re keeping an eye on everything. When it runs out, you’re making sure everything is stocked and fresh. Do you deal with customers?
Yoshio: Many American people, you know, recently, they ask many things.
Ikuyo: They come with recipes and they ask whether we have those or not.
Out of a newspaper or a magazine. Yeah, they want to get those recipes, which we never heard of.
Yoshio: Even ramen they try to make from scratch.
Ikuyo: It’s amazing. They want to.
Yoshio: People ask us, OK, I need to get this. I don’t want to say no, right? So, I try to find it.
Rachel: And when you track it down?
Ikuyo: So, we have to study, you know, what that is and now, we have to the marketability too. We cannot carry everything. So, we have to decide.
Rachel: What’s the most popular item at Hana?
Ikuyo: I guess it’s sushi products, many people ask for that.
Rachel: Like, the fresh sushi that you saw?
Ikuyo: Fresh sushi. No, not the made one. They want to make their own sushi.
Rachel: Oh, the sushi making.
Ikuyo: So, they ask us what we have for—what do you call those? The fresh—
Rachel: The sashimi, the fresh fish.
Ikuyo: The fresh fish meat to use for sushi making.
And also what they call “mochi.” Do you know what mochi is?
It’s different from Japan. Japanese mochi is—it’s not seasoned. But American people call it mochi, it’s all seasoned ones. And then with the red beans inside, it’s a snack, sweet snack. They are very, very popular.
Rachel: With Americans and Japanese?
Ikuyo: Especially Americans. They love mochi.
Rachel: Yeah. Where do you get them?
Ikuyo: Those are hot sellers.
Yoshio: From different distributors.
Ikuyo: Yeah. But most popular ones are handmade from New York. Yeah.
Rachel: Right. And those two items, is that a large part of what you sell during the week? Mochi and fresh fish?
Ikuyo: These days we sell a lot of vegetables. Amazing.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s hard to get those kind of vegetables anywhere else here. Like what?
Yoshio: Daikon napa. And Shanghai.
Rachel: Is that Chinese cabbage?
Yoshio: Or green onion.
Ikuyo: Thai basil. Yeah. One of our customers just told me that we are the only ones selling Thai basil, fresh, here in D.C. We didn’t know. No wonder they really go very fast.
Rachel: Yeah. So, you have a lot of items that people can’t get anywhere else.
Ikuyo Tanabe: Yeah.
Yoshio: Many customers ask us where they can get sake. Unfortunately, in D.C., this area—
Ikuyo: We don’t have our liquor license. So, we cannot carry it right now.
Yoshio: In D.C., that’s very difficult to get a license.
Rachel: So, what do you tell customers who ask where to get good sake?
Ikuyo: There’s one liquor store across the street from us. I told them to carry some sake, which they do now.
Rachel: You probably get them some good customers.
Ikuyo: They do.
Rachel: What’s the hardest part about running a small store?
Yoshio: I work seven days. I take off four days. We close only four days in a year.
Rachel: Four days in the year? Like, Christmas and?
Yoshio: Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4, and Jan. 1. New Year’s.
Rachel: That is not very much. When do you leave the store?
Ikuyo: Around 9.
Yoshio: I try to go out by 9. But. Right, 9.
Rachel: Nine. And it opens at 10 again. So, you’re probably there far before 10 in the morning.
Ikuyo: Well, between about 11:30 and 12.
Yoshio: Because I have to go to get things.
Rachel: So, you’ve grown a lot. You have a really loyal customers in D.C. and lots of people know you. Are you happy with how far it’s come?
Yoshio: No. Happy? At least not unhappy.
Rachel: Not unhappy. So, how did [Hana Market] start out?
Ikuyo: Hana has been always a grocery store.
Rachel: Right. But that the space where Hana is used to be?
Ikuyo: Oh, Japan Associates Travel. That’s the name of the travel agent.
Rachel: Ah. So, can you tell us how that started?
Ikuyo: Yes. I wanted to do something right after I quit my work at the embassy of Japan. In D.C. So, I started the Japanese travel agency.
Rachel: And what was your role?
Ikuyo: Well, I was the director. I am still. I run it now by myself. But I used to have three agents working for me.
Rachel: When did you open that?
Ikuyo: A long time ago. Yeah.
Rachel: OK. But I understand that travel agents were not as much in need when the Internet came around.
Ikuyo: Yeah. Right, right. That was our biggest rival. And they worked seven days, you know, 24 hours. So.
Rachel: So, you needed to do something new. How did Hana Market come about?
Ikuyo: He wanted to do something after he ran a Japanese restaurant.
Rachel: And what restaurants did you work at?
Yoshio: The name is Japan Inn. Then the last two years, the same owner, they opened a new one, named Chez Mama-san. It was over there in Georgetown.
Rachel: How did the idea come about for a grocery store?
Yoshio: One of these company’s staff asked me to open a restaurant.
But no, the restaurant business was too much. So. Then I just decided to do grocery. To open [a grocery] is much easier. So at that moment, I started by myself. Right? You know, first days since total?
Ikuyo: The first day that we opened that store.
Yoshio: Nov. 1 of 2008.
Rachel: What was that day like?
Yoshio: Do you know how much—
Ikuyo: We made?
Yoshio: Guess it.
Ikuyo: Pretty close.
Yoshio: Nowhere: $36.
Ikuyo: Well, nobody knew Hana Market.
Yoshio: Yeah. I did it by myself too.
Ikuyo: He was the only one.
Rachel: $36. And how much do you make on an average day now?
Yoshio: That is secret. $100,000 a month.
Rachel: So, Hana Market has grown a lot since 2008. Do you know how people find out about Hana Market? Is it just word of mouth, or do you advertise a lot?
Ikuyo: We don’t do advertising at all. I’ve heard people say that there is a Yelp. We’re on Yelp.
Rachel: Yes. You have good ratings on Yelp. But you don’t do advertising yourself much?
Yoshio: Because I don’t like it.
Rachel: Why not?
Yoshio: That is Japanese custom. Especially restaurants. OK? High-class restaurants, they do not advertise.
Rachel: So, if it’s good enough, you don’t need to advertise, because people hear about it.
Yoshio: Exactly. Yeah.
Rachel: How did you decide to turn the space into the grocery store and then keep the travel agency in the back?
Yoshio: We pushed her.
Ikuyo: Yeah, I got pushed in the corner.
Yoshio: At first, about two-thirds of the front is for grocery. Then we get more merchandise to put on the shelves.
Ikuyo: I would go—yeah, [I got] pushed back.
Rachel: It was not by choice.
Ikuyo: No. But I don’t need that much space. All I need is just one computer and one telephone. That little desk.
Rachel: Can you talk a little about how it’s changed?
Yoshio: The biggest change is the number of items. Because OK, I know that that is my personal problem, OK? When customers come ask me, I don’t want to say no. OK?
I want to try it. And they ask, OK, can you get this? Then I check it. Then if I get it, if I can find it, then I keep it. So, that’s why many are coming more and more and more. Right? One, two years later after we opened, there were 700 items.
After one year or two. Then a couple of years ago, we checked it. There are 1,700 [now].
Rachel: Yeah. You have so many different things. And yeah, a lot of different Asian items.
Yoshio: Even non-food.
Rachel: Non-food items.
Yoshio: Right. Like plate or something.
Ikuyo: Pot and pans, and then plates and dishes that are Chinese.
Ikuyo: I do those.
Yoshio: She cares about non-food stuff.
Rachel: How about the Thai products, like tamarind sauce, things for making Thai dishes. Did someone ask you for those specifically?
Ikuyo: They did, right? Yeah. Especially those curry pastes. The green, red, yellow curry pastes.
Rachel: So, they just said?
Ikuyo: We carry those now.
Yoshio: When we opened it, we expected Japanese people. Right?
But after that, [everything was] so different than we’d planed, than we’d expected.
Ikuyo: Yeah. We have more not Japanese. More, you know, Americans and then another foreign nationalities. We have like 40 to 35 percent Japanese clients.
Yoshio: No. I think as a number, the number is about 20 percent.
Ikuyo: Twenty or 25 percent. They buy a lot. The volume is different.
Yoshio: About 40 percent almost. Almost a half. But the number of Japanese is, yeah, one-fifth.
Rachel: Wow. And that’s surprising.
Ikuyo: Yeah. Most are American people.
Yoshio: Right. Many embassy people who lived in Japan, and those student who know Japanese food. Many, many non-Japanese people.
Ikuyo: With a lot of Chinese students.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. So, you get people that miss Japanese food or miss Asian food that they remember.
Yoshio: So, that’s why when I open it I get only Japanese food items. And now many different, Chinese or Korean, different things. We may have to change the name. Not Japanese grocery. We should have international grocery.
Ikuyo: We have to learn new things we don’t know.
Rachel: Like what?
Ikuyo: Lots of Thai recipes that we do not know the names of the dishes.
Yoshio: Right. Cilantro, Thai basil.
Ikuyo: Now we carry all of those.
Yoshio: We didn’t know that. What do they think they’re doing?
Ikuyo: We don’t use those for Japanese cooking.
Yoshio: Like tamarind
Rachel: So, do you learn a lot of new recipes then?
Rachel: People ask you questions a lot about what you sell, right? So, do you know how to use all the products that you sell in a recipe?
Ikuyo: Not those non-Japanese ones. No.
Rachel: Right. But you got them because people wanted them.
Yeah. So, what’s your favorite part of the day, Ikuyo?
Ikuyo: I don’t know. It’s not just a favorite part.
It doesn’t happen every day. But many times, the special American people come to Hana Market with the recipes. And then they want me to help them to get those, and which I do. And then they say, well, I’ll let you know how it comes out. And then after they come out the next day or a couple days later, they really come and they tell me how it turned out.
That’s really nice. I really like that moment.
Rachel: Oh, that’s cool. Yeah. They feel like they have a relationship to you.
Ikuyo: Yeah. And especially since they are making this Japanese dish for the first time. And then they’re really serious about it. It’s really nice to know. Yeah.
Rachel: Cool. Yeah. And the sushi making, I bet people do that a lot the first time. Do you cook a lot yourself?
Ikuyo: I do. I do. I love to. I love cooking. Yes.
Rachel: I imagine a lot of Japanese, since you have a lot.
Ikuyo: Yes. And then, we have a recipe, a sheet that you can take free. And then do like that. And then they buy the stuff on that page here.
Rachel: Oh, cool. What are you favorite dishes to make?
Ikuyo: I do, for my guests in my house, I do a do-it-yourself sushi, which is very easy.
All you have to do is just gather all the stuff, and then just show them how to do it. So, you make your own sushi. And everybody enjoys it, especially American people love that.
Rachel: And what’s your favorite part of the day, Yoshio?
Yoshio: When customers ask, do you have like this? And I say, oh, we have that item. So, when they ask and we have it, yeah, I’m very happy.
Then finally when they go out, they say, thank you. That’s another time I’m very happy.
Gross: Yeah. When they can’t get it anywhere else. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Ikuyo: Thank you.
Yoshio: You’re welcome.
Rachel: Thanks for talking to us.
Ikuyo: That was fun.
Rachel: Thanks for listening to Working. I’m Rachel Gross. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast. You can email us at email@example.com. And you can listen to all five season at slate.com/working.
This episode was produced by Mickey Capper. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. And the chief content officer of the Panoply Network is Andy Bowers.