The Tatsuda family is familiar with challenges when it comes to staying open for business.
And the community is doing what it does best — rising to the latest trial.
Originally opening in 1916, Tatsuda’s grocery store had been burned out twice and its owners interned once before this week’s rockslide shut its doors for an indetermined time.
The slide sent rock and trees into the back of the building and dispersed merchandise into surrounding parking spaces.
Fortunately, no injuries, or worse, deaths, occurred as a result because the slide happened at an early morning hour after the store and the next door liquor store had closed.
But the community is saddened nevertheless.
Bill and Katherine Tatsuda, the father-daughter team of local grocery store owners, had had the store extensively remodeled only five years ago.
Its ribbon cutting in 2016 marked the store’s 100th anniversary in the community, and it featured an unveiling of the Tatsudas’ appreciation for local art in a rainbow of colors depicting the grocery business. In one piece, colorfully painted vegetables surround an image of a black bear cub who had visited the store’s produce department not all that long ago.
The remodel won Tatsuda’s a national award from the Independent Grocers’ Association.
It is heartbreaking to see the slide’s destruction at a grocery store remodeled with such care and operated with such consideration of the community. But resilience is part and parcel of the Tatsuda family and of Ketchikan and Saxman, too.
Bill’s grandparents, who were immigrants from Japan in the early 1900s, opened the business in 1916 as Jimmie’s Grocery on Stedman Street.
The couple operated the store until the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by Japan. Following the bombing, the federal government required immigrants of Japanese descent to move into inland internment camps. The Tatsudas ended up in Idaho.
In 1946 after World War II, which the United States had entered as a result of the bombing, they moved back to Ketchikan and continued to market groceries. Then in 1947, the store burned down. The Tatsudas relocated on Stedman Street, where they remained until a 1972 fire occurred.
The family moved its business to the current location on Stedman Street in 1974, and it has been there ever since.
Through the years and generations — it was Katherine’s great grandfather who started the business — the store has welcomed all as if those who came and went were family.
Indeed, many customers showed up frequently enough and in sufficiently familial circumstances to qualify.
In recent years, when the federal government had shut down for an extended period, and federally employed customers didn’t receive paychecks, Tatsuda’s made accommodations.
When kids sought a spot to sell fundraising tickets for their various activities, Tatsuda’s made space. Even when adults had causes for which to fundraise, Tatsuda’s stepped up in multiple ways. One sign of the Christmas season’s start is The Salvation Army bellringer standing outside Tatsuda’s front door.
Tatsuda’s also is known for helping those who could not shop, delivering groceries in specific cases.
Those are the obvious ways that Tatsuda’s has gone above and beyond for the community, but, like in most businesses, the family’s heart for the community likely has resulted in many discreet and untold stories of generosity.
Tatsuda’s is integral to the Tatsuda family’s hometown. It’s where customers begin showing up in the morning before work, for lunch at noon and on the way home from the office at the end of the day. For downtown and South Tongass residents, in particular, it’s a quick solution to the forgotten ingredient or last-minute dinner guest(s). It is the only conveniently located grocery store for this part of town.
Not to mention, it’s a landmark. When the Alaska Department of Transportation referred to its Tongass Avenue improvement project this past summer, it often described the construction zone as between Tatsuda’s and the tunnel. Or, if a local footrace occurred in the downtown, route instructions might have included turn left, right or around “at Tatsuda’s.” Numerous times directions involve the phrase “at,” “by,” or “near Tatsuda’s.”
As much as Tatsuda’s is intrinsic to Ketchikan, the community is part of the store. It’s the owners, the employees, the customers and the Tatsudas’ community involvement that has created a longstanding and treasured relationship.
That’s not something to take lightly nor to give up on. And the community knows it. Other businesses and locals have responded following the slide, offering to help pick up the pieces, salvage useable product, provide at least temporary jobs for employees and assist displaced shoppers with limited ability to go much beyond the Tatsuda’s neighborhood.
The challenge ahead is no small undertaking. But challenge is no stranger to the Tatsudas, nor the community.
We’ve got this!