Glenda Hamilton honed her business acumen through different experiences than most entrepreneurs in the Flathead Valley.
Hamilton cut her grocer chops at her grandparents’ store at the community market in a city called Tayabas in her native Philippines. The city is located southeast of the capital, Manila.
Some of the business lessons she learned there when as a child have proved helpful for her experience in the Flathead, where she owns and operates Mabuhay Oriental Market in Kalispell. Still, others require a little interpretation to apply in this city.
“We’d wake up at 12 in the morning because they had to butcher the pig,” Hamilton said.
When she was only 8 years old, she began selling the gelatinous boba tea pearls with condensed milk in a vessel of banana leaves from the same shop.
Slaughtering animals isn’t necessary in the course of her day-to-day operations in Kalispell, but the principles of hard work and going to great lengths to make sure she is getting her customers precisely what they want have served her well.
HAMILTON GETS her products from bi-monthly expeditions she makes to Seattle in a big truck with a 14-foot cargo trailer in tow. Many of the products, such as kaffir leaves, different varieties of Korean gochujang sauce, avocado ice cream, curry paste and palm sugar are difficult to obtain at other retailers for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Even getting them in Seattle requires a great deal of expertise, and over the years Hamilton has developed methods that allow her to get anything her customers request.
“There’s no one store in Seattle that has everything,” Hamilton said. “I probably go to 12 to 15 different stores and warehouses to get what I need.”
Her regular customers know when Hamilton makes her trips, and she said they often bring her lists of things she doesn’t normally stock on her shelves to pick up. She said she takes special requests from any customers new or old.
“At least 60 percent of the stuff in the store, I didn’t know what it was until I started carrying it,” Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t have what I have today if my customers hadn’t said, ‘hey, what about this?”
One woman even regularly gives her a list written in Korean script, which Hamilton can’t read, but will bring to stores and warehouses where people who can read the language and retrieve the requested items. Hamilton then brings them back to Montana for her customer.
Some of her best sellers include imported jasmine rice and Korean kimchi, she said.
“Kimchi is a big hit,” Hamilton said. “We’ll bring like 30 gallons and it lasts maybe two weeks.”
Hamilton knows the products she offers are unique and appeal to people who have tried them elsewhere and then moved to the Flathead Valley, but she has also taken strides to introduce people who are unfamiliar with traditional Southeast Asian fare to the cuisine.
She offers cooking classes to teach people how to make four different dishes – egg rolls, a noodle dish, curry or chicken adobo and a rice cake dessert dish – using ingredients from her shop. The classes are $10 per person and require a minimum of five people. Hamilton will come to the customer’s home and use their kitchen to show them how to prepare the food.
The cost includes all the ingredients and instruction, and Hamilton’s main hope is that people will enjoy the dishes and then come into her shop to buy more ingredients to make them again in the future.
“We don’t make money off it,” Hamilton said. “It is kind of like advertising. After we’re all done the leftovers are yours. We only use your sink and your stove.”
HER HARD work has been paying off. As evidence, her business has grown steadily since she first started selling Southeast Asian products in Columbia Falls on July 1, 2005.
In 2008, she moved operations to Evergreen. Then, in 2015, she moved to her current location in Kalispell in the business park on the north side of U.S. 2 between Glenwood Drive and N. Meridian Road.
Now, she has a retail space big enough for several long aisles which are surrounded by additional shelving and 14 fridges and freezers that all carry fresh or frozen goods. She said the new space serves her and her customers well, and she hopes to be there for the foreseeable future.
As Hamilton’s business has grown, she has felt her role in the community grow alongside it. She has enjoyed presenting opportunities for Montana residents to connect with Filipino and Southeast Asian heritage.
Perhaps the best illustration is the boxes that fill her cargo trailer when she drives from Montana to Seattle to make a supply run.
Balikbayan boxes are large care packages that are common for Filipino people living abroad to send to their family that still lives back home. They can be filled with anything, but common products include things that are cheaper in America but popular in the Philippines. Many boxes feature toothpaste and other toiletries, clothing, perfumes, chocolate, makeup and whatever else the family may need.
Shipping services have sprung up in metropolitan areas that specialize in getting boxes from the United States to the Philippines for far cheaper than sending them through the U.S. Postal Service ever would be.
Hamilton performs that service for people in Montana. She collects boxes in the back room of her shop in the weeks leading up to her Seattle trip, then brings them to Seattle for a small fee and they are shipped from there.
“I have two brothers and two sisters there, so I send about 20 boxes a year,” Hamilton said. “Balikbayan means to come home. It’s kind of like a care package.”
She said it allows locals to connect with family and friends abroad, and allows people on tight incomes in the Philippines to get things they need. The service also goes hand-in-hand with the vision she had for her market from the start.
“I never thought I would be where I am now,” Hamilton said. “I am thankful my customers have supported me.”
Hamilton also credits her late grandmother, Virginia Llamoso Santos, with instilling lessons and values in her that have allowed her to be as successful as she has. Santos recently passed away back in the Philippines.
Mabuhay Oriental Market is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Hamilton also frequently opens the store outside normal operating hours to accommodate people who travel from long distances or can’t make it during their normal hours because of work schedules.
More information can be found by reaching out to Hamilton through the Mabuhay Oriental Market Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/myiriental. Cooking classes can also be scheduled by messaging the Facebook page.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.