Publish date: April 12, 2012
NW Asian Weekly
Yen Lam-Steward started working with her father at Lam’s Seafood Market from its humble beginnings on the corner of Main Street in 1991, running the cash register, scaling fish, and cleaning crab.
“Can you imagine a little girl cleaning fish that were like 30 or 40 pounds? Cleaning fish is not something that’s very glamorous — it’s fishy and smelly — but I loved it. I loved working with my parents, and I loved growing something and making something that we started from scratch,” said Lam-Steward.
The business began when her parents were fishermen and sold the catch of the day out of a van. Sales quickly picked up and, needing more space to sell their seafood, her father came up with the idea of opening up a market.
In 2005, Lam-Steward’s father returned to Vietnam and left the business to be run equally by Lam-Steward and her brother. But after five years, a rocky business relationship led to disorganization within the company.
At 27 years of age, Lam-Steward bought her brother’s share of the company to become the full owner of Lam’s Seafood.
“We have different ideas, a different ambition,” she said. “Usually with a 50–50 partnership, it’s really hard. It’s better to have 51–49 because then one person can be the executive decision maker. … When it’s 50–50, there’s a lot of confusion.”
The decision was a better one for the market but stressful for Lam-Steward, who wanted to become a mother soon. There were many challenges with the business that required her attention. Since Yen Lam-Steward took over the business from her father four years ago, she has improved the storefront and continued the market’s strong customer relations.
“I have watched her take over as CEO of the family business well before the age of 30,” said Leslie Lum, faculty member of Bellevue College’s Business Transfer Program and instructor of Lam-Steward’s consulting class in 2004. “She exemplifies the best of the second generation, taking Lam’s Seafood into the higher echelons of retailing. Lam’s Seafood has grown tremendously since she has taken over as CEO. Merchandise is more varied and of higher quality.”
The now 32-year-old business owner became a mother recently, as she had hoped to do when she first acquired the business. In 2011, Lam’s Seafood was ranked by CNN Money as among the top 100 fastest growing inner city businesses in the United States.
Long Nguyen, Lam’s Seafood Market’s operations manager, has worked with Lam-Steward for four years. He said that since she took over the market, he’s noticed more organization within the business and seen how much she’s grown the market in the public eye.
“We’re more exposed since she took over,” Nguyen said. “We have more people here; positions are more clearly defined. We opened two or three new parking lots, but it’s still not enough. The business is just growing really fast right now.”
Nguyen said he loves working at Lam’s because it attracts many customers, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Latinos, and Indians. The market ensures its mission to provide the top quality products and excellent customer service, which keeps loyal customers coming back.
“It’s very dynamic here,” Nguyen said. “I like working somewhere flexible and multicultural. We know how to serve [these] customers.”
“Merchandise is more varied and of higher quality. She has improved the flow of the store, expanding in a very ingenuous and effective way. At the same time, she has kept customer service high. Cashier lines are many and fast. I know that Lam’s Seafood has higher sales per square foot than major exemplar retailers such as Costco. I’ve had a student team work with Lam’s Seafood, and their analysis showed that customers think highly of the quality of the produce, seafood, and meats, yet the prices are very competitive, bringing great value. Customers are very loyal to Lam’s Seafood and it is easy to figure out why,” said Lum.
Lam’s assortment of products draws customers from all parts of the state. Even residents of Idaho have heard of Lam’s exceptional deals and have traveled across the state to shop at the seafood market. Theresa Reyna lives in Bellevue, but she shops at Lam’s at least once a week, saying it has everything she needs.
“They always have what I want,” Reyna said. “A lot of the stuff is fresh. They have all of the condiments under the sun that you would need to make your traditional Vietnamese food.”
Despite all the struggles and hardships Lam-Steward has endured to maintain the quality of Lam’s Seafood Market, she knows she is doing what she loves, and she perseveres to continue the legacy her father left her.
April 5 marked the big ‘two-one’ for Lam’s Seafood Market, located in the International District. Lam’s will celebrate its 21st anniversary with big sales and free food giveaways at the end of the month.
“As Lam’s celebrates its 21st anniversary, it should take credit for being an economic hub for our community, and Yen Lam should be applauded for being a model for young female entrepreneurs,” said Lum.
From the time of her childhood running the cash register until now, Lam-Steward’s fifth year as a business owner, Lam’s Seafood has taken on a great meaning for her. But she asserts that the goal of the market is to provide an equally meaningful experience for the customers.
“It’s not just about getting cheap bok choy or the cheapest crab,” said Lam-Steward. “It’s also the experience. When you come in, you get that feeling, that variety, that mix, from the smell to all the other senses.”
“This is a milestone. We’re maturing. We made it 21 years and we’re still growing and growing strong.”