Sacramento market has been run by the same family for 80 years. Can it survive COVID-19?

If you wander into Sam’s Market, a small store tucked into the corner of 14th and O streets on the quieter side of the Capitol, you’ll find an elderly, bright-eyed Chinese American woman whose occasionally speedy movements belie her advancing years.

This is Arvella Fong, Sam’s oldest daughter. She’s turning 90 years old in October, but she’s still behind the counter, punching your purchases into a solar-powered handheld calculator before ringing up the total on the cash register.

Her oldest son, 65-year-old Kenton Fong, will be behind the sandwich counter, where pastrami sandwiches and chicken salads have been made since the 1970s — and where they used to slice and grind meat for sausages. Her younger son, 57-year-old Dennis Fong, is stocking canned food and drinks or pulling lottery scratchers for customers.

Together, they are the pillars of the last remaining Sam’s Market, a butcher’s shop turned grocery store that’s been a Sacramento fixture for nearly 80 years. It’s a small but warm space, a one-stop shop for everything from fruit and ice cream to postcards and toothpaste. And it’s always been family owned, passed through three generations and 15 relatives.

“I don’t even feel that it’s work,” Arvella said. “It’s something I like to do. I enjoy talking to customers.”

Before COVID-19 caused the Capitol to send its staff home, most of Sam’s Market’s customers were Capitol workers rushing in for a quick sandwich or chopped salad on their lunch break. Now, it’s mostly neighborhood regulars and construction workers, standing on the sidewalks tearing Its-Its open with their teeth, scratching lottery tickets or nursing cigarettes.

Homages to the family’s long history and their regulars line the store. Polaroids of customers posing with their winning lottery tickets, grinning ear to ear, are thumb-tacked in their places of honor on the shelves behind the register. A polished wooden hand-crank cash register sits in the back by the sandwich counter. An ancient leather chopping block where the butchers used to cut fresh meats is still behind the counter, warped from decades of usage.

Equal parts convenience store, post office and an active member of the community in its own right, Sam’s Market has been a constant in a sea of Sacramento’s ever-changing landscape. It has endured two world wars, dozens of presidents, countless protests and economic booms and busts.

It’s been around for 80 years, and the goal is for at least 20 more.

A Sacramento neighborhood institution

The first Sam’s Market was opened by Sam Wong on Seventh Street and Capitol Avenue as a grocery store and butcher shop in either 1940 or 1941 — no one in the family remembers for sure. Sam came to California from Guangdong, China, around 1912, his children said.

They’re not clear on his life before they were born, they said, partly because of their parents’ reluctance to dwell on the hardship of their early years. In those days, immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. was still prohibited under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“We didn’t ask until we were older. And when they did, they talked very quietly,” Arvella said. “It was something we didn’t quite understand.”

The market moved to Fifth and N streets, where the Wells Fargo Center now sits. Sam raised the family of 10 — two adults, seven girls and one boy — in an apartment above the store.

In 1957, the store moved again, this time to its current location, In 1966, Sam opened a second location in Oak Park. Arvella ran the Oak Park store until 1996, while her younger sister, LaBelle Matsuura, took over downtown.

Arvella was 10 when she first started helping out her father in the store, sorting bottles and eggs and working alongside her siblings until midnight.

“I went (to Chinese school) for a year. And I wasn’t too interested in learning how to read Chinese,” Arvella said, laughing. “So instead of that, I would go to the store and pretty soon I ended up going to the store instead of going to Chinese school.”

She didn’t always plan to take over. As a child, she thought she would become a teacher. Kenton, who now runs the store downtown, also had no such aspirations. As a kid, the store was just a place to play, pretend he and his friends were characters from “The Lost World” and occasionally do the bloody work of cleaning the butcher station and meat-cutting tools.

When asked about why they took over the store, the two generations were matter of fact. For them, taking over the store felt like the natural next step for a family who’s been in the grocery business for the better part of a century.

“I didn’t think about it (until my 20s). It was just part of … helping out and working,” Kenton said.

“I had to take over the store,” Matsuura said. “I figured if my dad can do it, so can I.”

A swath of colorful characters have passed through Sam’s doors. Matsuura once rang up items for Squeaky Fromme, a former member of the Manson family who was arrested in 1975 for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford. It wasn’t until Matsuura saw her former customer’s face in the papers months later that she realized who she was, Matsuura said.

But Capitol regulars were always their biggest customer base, such as Cathleen Gardella, who worked as a legislative staffer for former chair of the California Democratic Party John Burton for 40 years. Getting lunch at Sam’s was a rite of passage for her office.

“We had Chinese chicken salad day. We’d say, ‘OK, it’s time for Chinese chicken salads,’ me and some other girls,” Gardella said. “We used to get together … and eat Chinese chicken salads on my patio.”

Longtime customer Mark Swanson started going to Sam’s downtown around 1960, when his father was a minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church two blocks away.

“We were at church so long on Sundays that my mom used to give us maybe 10 cents to get to the store, just to get us out of her hair,” Swanson said.

It wasn’t long before he and his siblings asked to go behind the counter and help them bag groceries, run the register and stock shelves. He and his siblings continued to help them out at the store whenever they could.

“We were spending good parts of the summer and spring vacation basically helping them out at the store,” Swanson said. “And we loved it. They were such personable people. They were interested in us and who we were.”

A community fixture

Arvella and her siblings saw their jobs as more than just grocers. They were community members, too — neighbors, friends, confidants.

“I learned a lot of things. You learn to talk to people,” Arvella said. “I can help them. I can help them with anything they can do.”

The family often covered for customers who didn’t have enough change or couldn’t meet their bills.

“When I was growing up, my dad had a billing book where people used to just come in and buy things, and you put the amount there,” Matsuura said. “At the end of the week, they come and pay you. Sometimes they come and borrow money.”

The family always kept a record, but rarely pressed those who couldn’t pay them back.

“A lot of them had credit. Boxes and boxes of credit that people owe. A lot of them don’t pay,” Arvella said. “My brother-in-law had a whole box (of customers who owed money) .. That’s part of life.

“You know, there’s people that are … they’re hungry. You have to feed them.”

Sometimes this meant more than just covering their customers’ change. When one of Matsuura’s employees, the main breadwinner for his large, low-income family, was priced out of the neighborhood, Matsuura and her husband brought them groceries, clothes and other necessities from the store downtown all the way to where his family had moved to south of Florin.

They had no access to public transportation there, she said, and no other means of getting to a grocery store. For her, the decision was simple.

“You give them what you have. Old things, old bread, as poor as we were … You build up a friendship with them.”

Tonya Pate grew up going to the Sam’s in Oak Park, which, when she was growing up, was the main grocery store for her neighborhood. She still remembers looking at the candy as a child, lined up in front of the cash register like jewels.

“All the kids in the neighborhood, we all went around there,” Pate said. “Even when I had my son, we would walk around the corner. I would take him in his stroller … for Arvella to see him.”

She and her friends would hang out in the store parking lot with ICEEs after school until Arvella would step out and tell them to go home before their parents got worried.

“They just helped the neighborhood,” Pate said. “They were like family.”

Looking ahead

If Kenton had his way, he’d keep this market going at least until 2040, when they would finally be able to claim the title of 100 years of business.

But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into those plans, though just how much of one remains to be seen. There’s also been the ongoing struggle of the last few years to keep up with the prices of the larger stores, especially as wholesalers have increased their delivery fees and other handling costs. That’s caused their own prices in the store to go up, he said.

They’re also not sure who would take over from them. Kenton’s nephew, Albert, was helping out over the summer, but that ended when he started school at Sacramento State, and he’s not interested in running the market.

But on that particular sunny Thursday in September, these challenges felt a little more distant, Sam’s Market vibrating with customers coming in for sandwiches and beer.

“That particular brand is very expensive,” Arvella warned a customer who placed a six-pack of beer on the counter. The man hesitated, considering the bright orange cans, before holding out his card to pay.

“They would never let me pay for a darn thing. I want to give them business!” Swanson said. “They’re just that generous.”

And even though she hasn’t gotten together with her old friends from work for a while, Gardella still gets out to Sam’s Market twice a month to pick up a salad and catch up with Kenton.

“I get one salad of the day that Kenton makes, and he makes me another one (for later) and puts the crispies in a baggie, because I’m not a cook,” Gardella said.

“I just hope that they can stay and continue to be such a nice little part of the community.”

For now, Sam’s will keep on churning, the store fridge humming low, living proof that Asian American history is American history, Sacramento history and a crucial part of the city’s story and fabric.