Jimmy Kathawa stands in his office at the Front Street market, in front of photos of his parents, left, and parents-in-law, right. Both sets of parents owned grocery stores. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Family pours hard work into new Front Street Market

“Challenging.”

This was the word produced by both Jimmy and Sandy Kathawa when asked to describe their first few months in business in Issaquah.

As of March 7, it has been half a year since the couple and their three youngest children uprooted their lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and came out west to Issaquah to purchase the Front Street Market at the corner of Front Street and Sunset Way.

As with any business, the first six months have been tireless for the Kathawas. Both work 12 hours a day, seven days a week; their last day off was Christmas. They are not above doing whatever it takes to help the business survive — far from having a hierarchy, the two are out on the floor with those whom they employ.

“We go wherever we’re needed. We’re hands on,” Jimmy said.

On a recent afternoon, Sandy was working at one of the cash registers alongside her employees.

“Whichever department they need me in, that’s where I go,” Sandy said.

Hard work is nothing new for the Kathawas. Back in Bloomfield Hills, Jimmy managed a grocery store for 27 years, and had worked at his parents’ store since he was a young teen. Sandy, too, grew up in the supermarket industry, working alongside her parents at the family business at age 10. Photos of Jimmy and Sandy’s entrepreneurial parents hang in the market’s office.

“By the time I was 12, I was a pro,” Sandy joked.

Like the businesses Jimmy and Sandy grew up around, Front Street Market is truly a mom-and-pop grocery store. Jimmy and Sandy’s 17- and 19-year-old daughters work at the shop, and their son is excited to start work when he is old enough in two years.

This kind of all-hands-on-deck, family supermarket is a rare sight in the modern world of shopping for groceries at large discount chains, or — in the even more modern way — ordering groceries online.

“It’s a dying art form — there aren’t too many independent retailers,” Sandy said. “People don’t understand the level [of commitment] it takes to run a store even of this size. There’s so much that comes into it.”

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the discount shopping mindset of the 21st century has not made the road for small business owners an easy one, in particular in the grocery industry.

“You have to have a strong backbone to have your own business and make it thrive,” Sandy said. “20 years ago, people didn’t have these challenges as much. Online shopping killed brick-and-mortar businesses.”

Jimmy explained that while he may not be able to match the prices of large retailers like Fred Meyer or Wal-Mart, the quality of his products is unbeatable. Front Street Market provides a wide range of organic products and fresh produce from farms in the region.

“We try to buy local as much as we can,” he said, explaining that he and Sandy buy from nearly every local distributor who comes in offering products. This includes items such as Steve’s Hot Smoked Salmons and Cheeses from Buckley, Steve’s Doughnuts from Snoqualmie and plenty of local wines.

“It’s a challenge competing with the big box stores, but in Issaquah for the most part people are pretty loyal,” Jimmy said. “We’ve got some customers who appreciate the store being here, especially the older ones who have to walk here.”

The shop also responds to customer requests. For instance, after customers asked for Boar’s Head meats, Front Street Market began stocking the brand.

“We want to offer customers everything they’re looking for,” Sandy said.

However, it is not the competition with the discount chains that has proved to be the biggest obstacle for the Kathawas since moving to Issaquah.

The Kathawas had barely opened their doors before finding themselves up against negative judgment and outright meanness from the new neighbors they had yet to meet. This was due, they said, to two articles published in a local newspaper that they felt painted them in a negative and incorrect light.

The articles, the Kathawas said, misrepresented the circumstances of the business takeover, making it appear as though they fired the former Front Street Market employees in a move to switch to a nonunion workforce. It was also reported that Kathawa was hiring new employees at just $10 an hour.

“I couldn’t fire them — they didn’t work for me, they weren’t my employees,” Jimmy said.

In actuality, he continued, he offered them $15 an hour to work for him, but 10 employees refused.

The damage, however, was already done. The Kathawas were insulted both in person at their shop and online. Just last week, their 17-year-old daughter Kayla was shouted at by a woman in the shop due to the rumors that have spread.

Worse, a local boycott has kept customers of the old Front Street Market away from the new one. The impact of the boycott has not gone unnoticed by the Kathawas, who said they have put everything into their new business.

“Whatever savings we’ve had, we put into this store,” Jimmy said. “We’re basically invested here.”

The experience has been harrowing for a family trying to make its way in a new place.

“We kind of felt helpless,” Sandy said. “To have people judging you for something not based on facts … We were new to the community; we didn’t have any allies.”

The positive outcome is that the Kathawas have seen who their true friends in the community are. Sandy said that well-wishers have been “coming in as a show of support” throughout the six months.

“There have been a lot of great people. I don’t know how we would have made it through the situation otherwise,” Sandy said.

And the Kathawas said that they are very happy to be in Issaquah.

“We fell in love with the area when we drove through two-and-a-half years ago,” Jimmy said, recalling the time he and his family came out west to visit relatives in the region. “I love walking out of the store and seeing the mountains.”

 

Nicole Jennings/staff photo Jimmy Kathawa organizes the fresh fruit in his shop. He and his wife redid the produce area upon taking over the business.

Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Nicole Jennings/staff photo Kathawa stocks as many locally-produced items as possible at the market, such as Steve’s Hot Smoked Salmon from Buckley.

Kathawa said he completely redid the produce section, “cleaning things up.” Nicole Jennings/staff photo