Longtime Sanger grocer bags up operations

Gongs Market closes up shop after more than 60 years in business; SafeCo to take over store’s operations

Gongs Market located at 1825 Academy Ave, Sanger, CA. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published February 3, 2024  • 
10:00 am

SANGER – The local grocery store, more than any business in a neighborhood, anchors a community. However, as Michael Ohashi, co-owner of Gongs Market, said: “Things change.”

This is one reason why Ohashi and his cousin and co-owner, Brian Gong, have decided to sell the business. Gongs’ last day of business is Feb. 4.

And while things change, groceries do not. Ohashi said the business of selling groceries has remained consistent since his family opened Gongs back in 1961. It’s the business of selling groceries that has changed.

“Groceries are a commodity. People come in, get what they need – the industry hasn’t changed. It’s the business model of running a business,” said Ohashi. “Those are the challenges, I think, facing all small businesses. Whether it’s a restaurant, it’s a pharmacy or grocery store; it’s gotten tougher, and we’re not getting younger.” 

And dealing with the mountain of regulations does not make running a small business any easier, he said.

Gongs Market located at 1825 Academy Ave, Sanger, CA. (Kenny Goodman)

“Groceries are like everything else,” Ohashi said. “Everyone buys groceries. It’s more about the business. You have corporate businesses. You’ve got regulations. You’ve got California regulations.”

He added, “Is change always good? Is innovation always good? I don’t think so.”

The chain stores, Safeway, Ralphs, Kroger’s, Save Mart, Albertsons, are all bigger corporations that have departments and specialists to help soften the blow of ever-changing regulations. However, this is not the case at Gongs.

“We don’t have attorneys on retainer. We don’t have accounting departments or HR departments or maintenance departments – we are those things. That’s all of us,” Ohashi said. “You see us helping customers or stalking shelves or changing light bulbs.”

Unlike other grocery stores where customers ring up and even bag their groceries, Gongs has remained old school when it comes to checkout.

“The big thing was self-checkout,” he said. “When it first came out, everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is great,’ but now we’ve come full circle. Now everyone hates self-checkout, that’s why we never did it. We want to keep helping customers; talking to them, bagging their groceries.”

WE’RE PART OF IT AND THEY’RE PART OF US

There were five siblings who were involved in the first business – a meat store in Fowler. Bill Gong was Brian’s father. Bessie Ohashi was Michael’s mother. There was Tom Gong, Mabel Gong, and Dickey Gong. The family left Fowler and came to Sanger in 1961. The first market was on 7th Street.

“The original building is now the Hannibal House,” said Ohashi. The family opened the Northgate business on the other side of town. Problem was, there were not enough Gongs or Ohashis to staff both stores.

“Basically, what it came down to is we ran out of family members. So, we consolidated,” said Ohashi.

The store’s current building – and shopping center – was built in 1972. At one time or the other, all the family worked in the store. Ohashi’s first job was recycling bottles.

“You remember recycling bottles? Pepsi, Coke, 7-Up. You return the bottles to the store. We used to do that. We had to sort those.” He said he and his cousins did all sorts of jobs. They picked up cardboard, and they wrangled shopping carts. “All the stuff you did as a kid,” he said.

Ohashi said the idea of family is not limited to blood.

“We treated everyone in Sanger like family because we knew everybody, and everybody knew us,” he said. “We sponsored baseball. Uncle Bill was part of Rotary, Uncle Dickey was part of Kiwanis. We always gave back. We’re part of the community. We’re part of it and they’re part of us.”

IT’S LIKE LOOKING THROUGH A SCRAPBOOK

Every business keeps employment records. For Ohashi, going through Gong’s records is like looking through a scrapbook.

“Seeing all the different people who’ve worked here,” he said. “The parents who have worked here. Their kids that worked here. The next generation that has worked here.”

Gongs has about 50 full-time and part-time employees. The new owner of the building, SafeCo, has agreed to retain the current employees. For many of these workers, Gongs is all they know.

“We’ve had people who have worked here for 30 years, 20 years,” said Ohashi. “One of our employees has worked here for 40-plus years. She has seen four generations of our family work here. She’s basically part of the family, too.”

Ohashi said for kids, working in the grocery store was their first job. He said it was as much a job as it was an education.

“We tell them, we know you’re not going to be here for long,” he said. “But when you’re here, you can learn skills. Communication skills, punctuality. I say to them, ‘Treat every customer like you would want your grandma treated. You wouldn’t put her bread in the bottom of the bag or her soap in with the meat. Would your grandma want to lift a heavy bag?’.”

NO NEXT GENERATION

Ohashi said he and Gong decided to sell because they and the other relatives currently working in the store are the last generation to be involved with the business.

Notice of Ownership Change sign located in the window of Gongs Market. (Kenny Goodman)

“There’s no next generation after us,” he said. “The store provided opportunities for people to do other things. Eventually, you run out of family members. You then ask, ‘When is a good time to start a new chapter?’”

Ohashi is a licensed pharmacist, a job he did for 30 years. He has no intention of returning behind the pharmacy counter.

“I am thinking of going into the pharmacy consulting side,” he said.

He said the thing he will miss most is interacting with people; the day-to-day interactions many people take for granted, of people coming and going from the store.

“I will miss people coming up and asking, ‘Hey, Michael. How’s it going?’,” he said.

However, Ohashi is not going anywhere despite this change. He said he is staying in Sanger.

“They’ll still see me. I’ll still be in town.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter