When Jimmy and Sandy Kathawa shut the doors of Front Street Market on the evening of May 15, they were closing the doors for the last time.
After just seven-and-a-half months in business, the Kathawas, who moved out here from Michigan last autumn, made the difficult decision to shut down the neighborhood grocery store and move back across the country to their former home.
The market had been a true mom n’ pop shop — a rarity in 2017 suburbia — with the Kathawas’ two youngest daughters giving the family business their all as employees.
“We just couldn’t continue any longer … We were so far underwater it wasn’t doable anymore,” Sandy told the Reporter. “We were working 12, 13-hour days just to lose money.”
Issaquah residents were shocked when on their grocery errands on May 16, they found a sign on the market’s door bearing the words, “Front Street Market is permanently closed.”
Many people took to social media to express their sadness at the closure of a neighborhood family shop. One commentator noted that keeping an independent supermarket running in this day and age would be difficult with competition coming from mega-stores like Wal-Mart and from online retailers like Amazon.
At an interview with the Reporter in March, the Kathawas stated that competing with big-box stores, which can afford to appeal to the average shopper by drastically slashing prices, certainly made their endeavor as a small business harder.
However, the Kathawas’ struggles did not only stem from being a small shop in the age of chain stores. If that were not enough of a challenge to deal with, they found upon arriving in Issaquah — which they had assumed to be a small, friendly suburb — that many people were already determined not to support them. A local boycott had formed out of people who were angry at what they’d heard was the firing of all of the former Front Street Market employees.
The boycott was fueled when a community newspaper no longer in business reported that Jimmy fired all of the former Front Street Market employees in a move to switch to a nonunion workforce and was hiring new employees at just $10 per hour.
Jimmy explained to the Reporter that he never fired anyone, as it was impossible to fire people who weren’t already his employees. He stated that he offered all of the former Front Street Market employees $15 per hour to come work for him, but that 10 had refused.
As soon as they opened their doors, the Kathawas became the recipients of nastiness from their neighbors and fellow community members. Jimmy and Sandy said that people came in to make mean comments to them and even on occasion to their children, but didn’t bother to stick around and hear the whole story from the Kathawas’ mouths.
It was not an ideal situation for out-of-towners already adjusting to a new community and new business atmosphere.
“We realized from the get-go things were bad,” Sandy said. “Business dropped 50 percent from the day we took over. We hoped things would turn around and we’d be able to make things work.”
The couple had been considering closing since January, but plowed onward, holding out hope that business would pick up.
“We wanted to give the store a chance,” Sandy said. “We were hoping the community would come around, but we did that to our own detriment.”
The hard times meant that Jimmy and Sandy were all the more appreciative of those community members who did stand up for them and support the business.
“We got a lot of support from the community and a lot of really good people backing us up,” Sandy said. She said that receiving one positive comment from a customer in a given day “made it feel worthwhile and made us feel we weren’t so alone.”
The Kathawas said that they had considered selling the business rather than shutting it down outright, but that there was little hope anyone aside from a multi-millionaire looking for a project would buy a business in their situation.
“Jimmy and I were taking on a majority of roles in the store and we weren’t getting paid,” Sandy said. “Nobody is going to go through that kind of grueling work just to lose money.”
It was an especially difficult decision to close the doors because, although both Jimmy and Sandy had grown up in families that owned grocery stores, Front Street Market was the first business that they had started together.
“Our American Dream turned into the ‘American Nightmare,’” Jimmy said.
Additionally, the two had looked forward to being part of the Issaquah community for a long time to come.
“We didn’t look at this as just a business venture; we were hoping to start a new life, join a new community,” Sandy said. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The two remain positive and are determined to “pick up the pieces and move on,” according to Sandy. Now back in their old house in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, they are focused on finding new jobs — Sandy plans to go back into accounting — and are very happy to be back with friends and family.
“It’s nice to see everyone again,” Sandy said. “We really love Issaquah, but home is home.”
Still, the Kathawas will never forget the wonderful people they met in Issaquah. Those friends in the community who supported them were the bright spot in the trying time.