To an outsider, the longevity of Mabuhay Oriental Market might seem like something of an unlikely success story. But for Glenda Hamilton, who opened the Asian specialty grocery store in the Flathead Valley nearly 16 years ago, it’s always made perfect business sense, particularly when she sees how much her customers value her exotic inventory.
“I have customers who thank me because I carry food they grew up eating as children but they can’t find anywhere else,” Hamilton, who was born in the Philippines and migrated to Montana via New York, said. “It’s almost an emotional response for some of them.”
There’s the Korean customer who each month jots down a grocery list in her native script, delivering it to Hamilton before the grocer’s pilgrimage to the Seattle area, where she visits a dozen warehouses and markets to meet all of her customers’ wide-ranging requests, loading the precious cargo into a 14-foot trailer before transporting the items, which weigh up to 2,000 pounds, back to Kalispell.
“She makes out her shopping list in Korean because she doesn’t know how to say it in English, and the Korean grocers in Seattle can translate,” Hamilton said, noting that the trip from Seattle can take four days even if there are no disruptions to her itinerary.
Then there’s the Japanese families who can’t find their favorite treats anywhere else in the Flathead Valley, and would have to do without their weekly allotment of Mochi cookies and cakes if it were not for Mahubay Market and Hamilton’s efforts.
“It’s comfort food and it’s tradition,” she said, pointing out an array of other hard-to-find specialty items including curry, noodles, sauces, seasonings, soy sauces, hoisin, galangal, kaffir leaves, kimchi, and more.
Hamilton has deep ties to the grocery business, and as a young girl helped out at her grandparents’ store at a community wet market in Tayabas in her native Philippines, located southeast of the capital, Manila. Still, she never thought those experiences would one day translate into a professional career as a grocer in Montana.
In 2005, with teenage children in high school in Columbia Falls, Hamilton decided to open Mabuhay (which roughly translates to “live long” and “welcome” in English) in Columbia Falls, selling products that are traditional in many Southeast Asian countries but hard to come by in the hinterlands of Montana.
The following year, she relocated to Evergreen before expanding in 2015 to her current location in Kalispell, in the business district on the north side of U.S. Highway 2, between Glenwood Drive and N. Meridian, in a retail space big enough to accommodate several crowded aisles of groceries as well as more than a dozen refrigerators and freezers to store fresh and frozen goods.
As the business has grown, so too has her customer base, and Hamilton uses the trailer to facilitate another service, MOGO, or “Mabuhay on the Go.” The centerpiece of her business model has always been her willingness to make frequent trips to Seattle to purchase eclectic products, including rare varieties of Korean gochu-jang sauce, avocado ice cream, curry paste, palm sugar, lime leaves, and other items uncommon in land-locked states like Montana. And because her customers aren’t shy about making special requests on Mabuhay’s Facebook page, Hamilton has taken her show on the road, tracking up and down western Montana and parts of Idaho in her trailer, delivering goods to eager customers.
After stocking up last month in Seattle, and furnishing her store with the goods she keeps on the shelves, Hamilton loaded up the trailer and cut a route from Cut Bank to Bigfork, stopping in Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, heading down the Bitterroot Valley and into Idaho, and then returning north through the Mission Valley.
“We have customers all over expecting our deliveries,” she said.
Although the travel was once her favorite aspect of owning Mabuhay Oriental Market, it’s become a massive undertaking that takes a toll on her, and she’s enlisted the help of Willie Dable to help out at the store, as well as with another venture — the Pinoy Cooking Class.
For a nominal fee, Hamilton and Dable will load up a basket of ingredients and come to customers’ homes to offer cooking lessons and prepare a meal, either for a family or for a dinner party.
“We provide the ingredients and use your kitchen,” she said. “We do a variety of dishes — curry, chicken adobo, noodle dishes, egg rolls.”
By offering cooking classes using the ingredients sold at Mabuhay, Hamilton and Dable hope to educate the Flathead Valley’s residents who aren’t familiar with traditional Southeast Asian cuisine and, in doing so, promote their products.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching people about different kinds of rice or noodles,” she said. “In the Philippines we make everything out of rice, and we carry 20 different kinds of rice at our market. Korean rice, Japanese rice. Everyone has their preference.”
Located at 1085 U.S. Highway 2 West in Kalispell, Mabuhay Oriental Market is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For the most up-to-date information, follow Mabuhay Oriental Market on Facebook, and contact Hamilton through direct message to make special requests or inquire about the cooking classes.
“People shouldn’t be afraid to come in and ask questions, either,” Hamilton said. “I think some people are intimidated because they don’t recognize the products, but that’s OK. We carry things that even I haven’t heard of.”
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