by Rachel Eagan
From learning the healing powers of Chinese herbal remedies, to experiencing the hustle and bustle of a Laotian market, over 50 local travelers sampled their way across the globe this summer without ever leaving Seattle. How?
For the past six years, the Martin Luther King Business Association (MLKBA) has played cultural ambassador for those looking to explore the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Othello and Graham business districts through a business tour. Tours help neighbors and visitors from all over the Puget Sound area, and as far away as Germany, discover one-of-a-kind, locally-owned, small businesses, restaurants, and other hidden gems in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Seattle.
Between Othello and Graham along MLK Jr Way S, 59 languages are spoken, 150+ mostly immigrant and refugee businesses are located, and, starting in 2017, 20,000 sq ft of new retail space will be open. With so much new development and competition heading towards Othello, the business tours are designed to help promote small, family-owned businesses. Businesses that for generations have served this diverse neighborhood, a historic a landing place for immigrant and refugee communities for over 100 years.
In addition to a slice of history, the business tours dish out food from Thailand, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Somalia. The restaurants, delis, and bakeries featured on the tours often provide ample samples and introduce participants to signature plates, featured spices, and the correct way to scoop up the last of the rice on your plate in East Africa. Hint: it involves a banana.
But the real treat, participants say, is meeting the business owners themselves. “I enjoyed hearing the business owners stories,” said one participant, “like the owners of Huarachitos, Che Dessert Lounge, The Chinese Herb Shop, and Thai Sauvon.” And from another participant, “Going into the businesses and meeting the owners was a great way to learn about the neighborhood and encourage visits in the future.”
Many participants note often having passed the Othello and Graham business nodes but never entering due to anxiety over not being able to communicate or being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar. “I never would’ve gone in by myself. I’ve seen a lot of these places before but it’s nice to walk around with people who know the area.”
Plus, it’s hard not to immediately feel comfortable on the tour with a guide like Susanna Tran. An MLKBA Board Member, Susanna, whose parents own Tony’s Bakery, grew up in Othello. Her knowledge of the community is rivaled only by her friendliness and enthusiasm for introducing new people to the shops she once called neighbors.
Susanna’s family was also instrumental in founding the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, Co Lam Pagoda, whose expansive manicured garden strewn with golden sculptures and meandering dragons is a crowd favorite on the tour.
So what are people saying about the tours? Common survey responses include:
“I never knew these shops existed.”
“I learned about a whole new community.”
“I will definitely be back!”
This year, the MLKBA partnered with On Board Othello and FeetFirst.
If you are interested in globetrotting Othello, e-mail Rachel@homesightwa.org. Tours are FREE and no passport is required.