These days, Boo Han Market’s aisles are lined with authentic Asian foods and goods.
From soft tofu to spicy kimchee to cuts of beef and fresh seafood, the specialty grocery store’s selection has attracted shoppers from throughout the South Sound and beyond for nearly four decades. After years of expanding and adapting to meet the needs of customers, Boo Han Market continues to thrive in Lakewood’s International District – a remarkable feat given its humble beginnings as a rice cake and tofu factory in owner Boo Han’s garage.
The market’s story begins with Han, whose father ran a grocery store in Korea. The younger Han emigrated from Korea to the U.S. with his family in 1973 and bought a 400-square-foot home in Lakewood near his sister-in-law’s. He and his wife worked for five years and saved up enough money to start a rice cake and tofu factory in their garage—a garage that Boo Han himself built. The family devoted countless hours of work to their dream. Jae Han, Boo Han’s son, says his father slept about three hours a night during the early years.
The market’s development reflects the increasing needs of its customers. Contrary to today, the Korean community in Lakewood was relatively small when the market first opened. Offering authentic goods wasn’t the most lucrative of endeavors, but Boo Han chose to cut into his own profits to directly import his products. It wasn’t easy, but the family managed.
Eventually, word of the store’s commitment to authenticity began to spread, and its popularity grew, along with the region’s Korean community. Over time, Boo Han Market was surrounded by competitors. Jae Han recalls at least 17 other Asian grocery stores that opened around his family’s, though only a handful remain.
The main reason behind the store’s staying power is its authentic Korean and Asian goods. Boo Han Market offers departments for produce, meat, dairy and seafood – all of which are popular with Asian and non-Asian customers alike. Yes, shoppers of all ethnicities frequent Boo Han Market for produce because many of the same items are cheaper than in mainstream grocery stores. It sells some produce, such as green onions and cabbage, practically at cost to offer the best deals.
In 1990, the store expanded to the space that shoppers see today. Jae Han still remembers the transition from working as a delivery boy for the factory to working retail in the market. Despite downturns in the economy and changing needs of its customers, the store has survived and even thrived where others couldn’t.
Jae Han attributes the store’s successful run, in part, to his family’s spirit of hard work and dedication. He also credited a notion that’s even simpler: the store talked and listed to its customers. It found out what they wanted, what foods they missed from Korea and provided those products at the lowest possible cost.
The family says it won’t relent on its philosophy anytime soon.
Even after decades of service, Boo Han Market has big plans in store. Jae Han has purchased 20 acres surrounding the existing store, and there are plans to expand into that space over the next 10 to 20 years. One day, Boo Han Market will approach “one million square feet” of food and goods, maybe more, Jae Han says.
Jae Han is slowly taking over full ownership of Boo Han Market, although his parents still put in plenty of time. The family also opened a successful market in Edmonds, and Jae Han says he is also looking beyond the grocery business, as he owns the Bowlero Lanes bowling alley in Lakewood and is considering branching into senior care.
In the meantime, Boo Han Market in Lakewood will continue to do what it has done for nearly 40 years: offer authentic Asian foods and goods at a reasonable price.
For those who haven’t visited Boo Han market, Jae Han says it’s worth a quick trip: “Come in and at least try it. You’ll be surprised.”
Boo Han Market is located at 9122 South Tacoma Way at the heart of the International District. You can learn more about them and catch some sales on Facebook/Boo Han Market or on their website http://www.boohan.com/ . You can also call at (253) 588-7300.