By JULIE SABLE
It’s a local landmark one that’s spawned a seafood habit for many a Glendale area resident who say they couldn’t live without their daily or weekly fix.
“I’ve been shopping here for 10 years and they are so concerned with freshness that they won’t even let me buy my fish the day before I need it they tell me to come back the next day,” said Ruth Wolcott, who stops by the Fish King twice a week to cruise the counter for salmon, Fiji whitefish and lobster.
Located on Glendale Avenue, Fish King has developed into a family business with father, son, cousin and even mother involved.
It’s an example of how a small business can develop an area-wide reputation for quality and customer service elusive elements for many modest-sized businesses.
The family patriarch, Hank Kagawa, had worked part time at Fish King while studying commercial art at Los Angeles Community College. At some point during the time he spent filleting fish and waiting on customers, Kagawa figured that he would have a better career as a fish king than as an artist.
When the business was available for purchase in 1956, he seized the opportunity. Together with family members, Kagawa expanding the store, putting in a deli counter and dining area, and developing a customer service approach.
“We noticed that many customers were not sure how to properly cook fish so if they had questions or hesitated at attempting it, we did it for them,” said Jon Kagawa, Hank’s 39-year-old son. “Our service doesn’t stop at wrapping the purchase, the staff will cook, shell, fillet, char-broil, fry or crack it as well.”
Fish King has served many famous customers through the years, including the crew of Queen Elizabeth’s ship when it was docked in Long Beach.
Jon Kagawa recalls a day when he was working behind the counter and heard a very distinctive voice in the store.
“I looked up and there, live and in person, was the Julia Child,” he said. “That was quite a thrill.” Other celebrity Fish King shoppers include Kevin Costner, Tim Conway and KCBS-TV Channel 2 news anchor Ann Martin.
Not famous but fiercely loyal are Julia and George Brazauskas of Eagle Rock, who have been eating at Fish King at least once a week for the past 15 years. They come for the “crunch” fish, a specialty (the “crunch” is provided by light breading and deep-frying whitefish, halibut or shrimp).
“We would never think of going anywhere else for our fish,” said Julia Brazauskas.
Bryan Taylor of Los Feliz buys all of his salmon at the Fish King for his catering business. “It’s absolutely the best place,” he said. “Because everything is so fresh, you don’t have to do anything fancy to it, just enjoy it.”
A slow day at Fish King can see as many as 400 customers come into the store, requiring up to 15 employees behind the counter. Customer traffic can increase to as much as 1,000 customers per day during the Christmas holidays.
Salmon remains the most popular fish throughout the year due in part to its affordability.
“Raising salmon on farms brings its price down,” Jon Kagawa said. “Although prized for its taste, swordfish remains more expensive than salmon as it is a migratory fish, making it harder to come by and uncertain as to daily availability.”
Fish that were swimming in waters around Australia, Taiwan and Chile can be in the display case at Fish King within 24 hours, given the availability of air cargo, he said.
Like his father, Jon Kawaga had considered a non-fish career, trying his hand at sales after graduating with a degree in public administration from the University of Southern California. But he was lured back to the family business within a few months.
Now he spends 12 hours a day, six days a week in the store, just as his father did for the past 40 years. On a recent day off, Jon Kawaga had already put in six hours and was trying to get out from behind the counter in time to pick his daughter up after school.
Kawaga’s cousin Richard Asao is the general manager of Fish King’s wholesale division, which is based in Burbank and supplies fish for restaurants.
The wholesale division caters to about 150 white tablecloth restaurants, including Parkway Grill in Pasadena and Maple Drive in Beverly Hills.
For Citrus restaurant’s kitchen manager Diane Mohilef, who orders 50 to 100 pounds of fish per day from Fish King, the routine task of ordering fish is a highlight of her morning.
“I think they have top quality fish, top service and are great people to deal with,” Mohilef said.
She said they have provided life-saving services for her when the kitchen has run low or out of a certain fish by making emergency deliveries.
“I never have to worry about the quality of the fish,” Mohilef said.
Cousins Richard Asao and Jon Kagawa will eventually take over for the elder Kagawa when he retires.
“My father is relinquishing some of his duties here,” said Jon Kagawa, “but he can’t get out of the habit of going to the (downtown) fish market several days a week.”