Auburn couple opens mom-and-pop grocery store

Dhotson’s sets up at site of former Lea Hill Market.

There are no gray hairs on Kuljit Singh’s or wife Malika Kaur’s heads.

But the couple, just entering their early 30s, have long cherished this old-timey dream: to open and run an old-fashioned grocery store.

A neighborhood mom-and-pop, a species of Americana, which, for the most part, has ceded to big box and corporate.

Where the prices are reasonable.

Where customers get something more after a clerk has scanned their items than the often soulless, perfunctory, “have a nice day” they get at the big stores — because customers and employees live in the same neighborhood and know each other, almost uniformly by name.

Such was the idea that first ran through Kuljit Singh’s mind in 2018.

Last Wednesday, Dhotson’s, at 12722 SE 312th St. in Auburn, the site of the former Lea Hill Market, celebrated its grand opening to grand community aplomb.

Its official opening was Sept. 26.

The 15,000-square-foot store offers dry goods, fresh produce and frozen foods. It also has a deli area with hot items like pizza and traditional takeout goodies.

“In a week, we’ve already established a good clientele, a repeat clientele. And if we get something at a low cost, we try to sell it at a low cost. We are trying to break the stereotype of how the store that used to be here was under the previous owners.

“We don’t want customers to come in and view it as a convenience store. We want them to come in and and do their daily or weekly or monthly shopping here,” Mr. Singh said. “People have come in and told us, ‘we feel a really good, positive vibe.’”

Making it happen was not easy.

“It was a team effort,” Singh said, “never a one-man army,” and singled out his wife, Malika, his partner in everything, for particular praise.

The couple had planned to open last year, but life had other ideas.

In December, the couple were married. Upon their return to the United States in February, they were on the cusp of marshalling their contractors when COVID-19 brought the hammer down.

“We found out our contractors could not work for at least a month. Then came the new regulations. We were going to be at 100 percent capacity, then we were down to 20 percent because most of the contractors were short on labor. It was tough,” Singh said.

Singh, whose family emigrated from India in 2004, graduated in 2008 from Auburn Mountainview High School and worked at his family’s successful Punjab Trading Company on B Street Northeast in Auburn. That experience, he said, taught him a lot about the back-end of the grocery business.

Later, he branched into real estate and construction, and in time, he earned his AA in business administration from Green River College.

“While we were building three houses on 124th and 307th, we used to come to the gas stations, or drive all the way down to Safeway for the contractors on site who needed water or Gatorade, because it was hot. And then the store that was previously here closed down in 2018, and we told each other it would be really nice to open something here and kind of give back to the community,” he said.

”It was not a case of ‘let’s make more money,’ because financially, we were set,” Singh continued. “It was a case of ‘it’d be nice to actually have something here, especially for our employees, because they all live around here, most of them in these apartments above us. I have a few employees that live right across from here. They wanted a family-owned, local store, not a corporate behemoth coming in to make a pile of money.”

Singh added: “My wife kind of motivated me to go for it, and my parents said they’d help out.”

Singh is one of the few people who can say “it wasn’t about money,” and his listener walks away knowing that the guy’s on the level.

“He means it,” said former Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis, whom Singh credits for mentoring him in the endeavor, for helping him navigate the complexities of shepherding his project through officialdom, especially valuable in a time of pandemic, at City Hall and elsewhere.

“Our landlords have been very helpful, they’ve been right with us, saying ‘hey, if you can’t find contractors, we’ll kind of extend your lease, so that all of the burden’s not on you. It all worked out really well. The city came in and they kind of mentored us in what needs to be done. We met the right landlord, and now we have a great team to run the store,” Singh said.

“One of the perks of retirement is I can help people who care,” said Lewis. “There are so many first-and- second-generation immigrants who live for family, work hard and just need someone who understands both them and the system. The families are wonderful.”