My Seafood City Experience

By | October 14, 2017

“A moment’s beginning ends in a moment” ― Munia Khan

TORONTO – The coming of Seafood City to Canada, specifically in Mississauga in the Greater Toronto Area, has somehow revived memories of my former hometown of San Diego, California from where the supermarket giant began in 1989.

It has three stores that carry the name Seafood City in San Diego City at Mira Mesa, and the suburbs of National City (its birthplace) and Chula Vista, and another, Manila Seafood, also in National City, the town that has the most number of Filipinos in San Diego County.

No doubt the stores are a popular destination in San Diego and Los Angeles where it has expanded from three to nine stores at least.

Without even trying, the name Seafood City screams “Philippines” – an essential element in its branding that easily finds homey acceptance from its target market in cities where a significant number of Filipinos live, work and raise families.

In a sense, “Philippines” means canned or bottled goods on their shelves, for example, bagoong (shrimp paste) and patis (fish sauce) which non-Filipinos find stinky but are staples in the dinner table; farm produce, fruits, sea products, and practically everything Filipinos can identify with.

The influx of Filipinos on opening day (Thursday, Sept. 28) in Mississauga from across Ontario province and its southern border cities in the United States (many cars had New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois plate numbers) attests to a global craving for a one-stop store of Filipino goods.

Seafood City fills that void, and if one takes into account the rapid rise of Filipino immigrants in their preferred region of settlement – the Greater Toronto Area – the store’s Mississauga branch, its first in Canada, would soon be overwhelmed despite its big size at 50,000 sq. ft.

It’s hard to say that it is the novelty of it all that is fueling the customer avalanche. 

The same thing was said of its San Diego stores, but the company continues to flourish. Now, Seafood City has branches all over the United States – nine in Southern California; seven in Northern California; four in San Diego; one each in Chicago, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Seattle, for a total of 24 stores.

In seven years (the time since I left San Diego and moved to Toronto), the growth is particularly amazing. Its expansion I can only attribute to the owners, the brothers Go – Steve, who is the chairman; and Caloy, the Chief Executive Officer.

Though I saw them every so often when I accompanied my parents and drove them from our residence in San Diego to National City to buy our household needs, I had not personally interacted with either Steve or Caloy.

But I knew them since the early 90s. Seafood City was the biggest advertiser. actually the economic lifeline, of Philippine Mabuhay News (PMN) where I was the editor-in-chief. The paper’s owners and publishers, Danny and Nette Bungay, were their good friends.

Danny crafted Seafood City’s two full-page ads in the PMN office, and from there, the mockup pages were distributed to the other Filipino newspapers. How Danny assembled the pages is a story in itself.

Every other week, he would be supplied with all the products that were on sale, for example, pork chops, chicken legs, fish, some fruits, and vegetables, etc. Danny would bring them all to the PMN office. There he would take pictures of each item with his film camera, develop the pictures in his dark room, dry them, and cut them up to size, and put them on the page layout.

His wife Nette would then check the items on the list to match the sale prizes, and once the review is done, Danny would take photos of the whole page. That’s how tedious the pre-printing process was. 

But the couple would always have a smile on their faces. For, after the picture-taking of the Seafood City products, they could keep them as their groceries. At least, they did not have to shop, they get to save some money. That’s quite a consolation.

On this community night on Tuesday, Sept. 26, I had a quick interaction with both Steve Go and Caloy Go, and their PR and advertising guru, Greg Macabenta, who owns Minority Media Services Inc. based in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City.

“You look familiar,” Steve Go greeted me as we shook hands. “Of course,” I said, “I’m from San Diego. But I already moved here”. “Oh, that’s why I don’t see you there anymore,” he replied.

Caloy Go had practically the same reaction. I stopped taking pictures for a brief chat and he seemed genuinely happy to see me. I told him Toronto is my new hometown, and he smiled.

Then I saw Greg Macabenta talking with some women guests. I hesitated to interrupt so I waited. After a while, I went up to him and offered a handshake. He accepted. I told him: “Welcome to Toronto”. He nodded and smiled.

Greg and I had a falling-out over the bust of Jose Rizal erected in 1998, on Greg’s initiative, in front of the Seafood City store in National City. I was against its installation on grounds it devalued the Philippine hero because Seafood City is a fish market.

My protest story in Philippine Mabuhay News never got published, understandably, as the paper’s owners did not like to compromise their friendship with the Go brothers and Greg. 

So, rather than trigger more enmity, I resigned my position and put up my own newspaper, the broadsheet Diario Veritas, in time with the unveiling of Rizal’s bust that was part of the Philippine Centennial celebration that year.

Greg later became national chairman of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), the umbrella organization in 13 states which, incidentally, is marking its 20th year this year. His position opened the floodgates of criticisms and unflattering stories about NaFFAA, particularly in my paper and in the Mabuhay Radio website of Bobby Reyes in Los Angeles.

That evening when the joyous atmosphere was starting to die down at Seafood City, I told Greg: “I make peace with you”. 

Forthwith, he extended his right arm and proferred a handshake. I clasped his hand like we were friends from way back in San Diego. It started in Seafood City, and it ended in another Seafood City. #