People of Downtown - Ken & Kendra Nakagama

Posted on : Monday, November 07, 2022


Nakagama’s was started in 1947 by Ken Nakagama’s father. This family-owned business occupied its first storefront in our very own Downtown core, right on 1st Avenue. At this time, there were no Japanese businesses in Southern Alberta serving Japanese food. His vision was to carry on the legacy of the Japanese store he operated in British Columbia prior to the war in 1927. Following the conclusion of the war, many Japanese people began to relocate and he made his way to Southern Alberta. Others did as well, particularly in the farming community, finding new homes from Picture Butte to Raymond. Many of these Japanese people found work on farms but did not have a lot of money and usually didn’t have vehicles, resulting in limited mobility. Ken’s father was able to get enough money together to purchase a small truck, and began gathering products little by little, from various locations: fish from a market in Shaughnessy, tofu from Ms. Higa in Taber, etc. Because of the immobility of many Japanese people at this time, he would go door-to-door at different farms, taking his products and selling directly to the folks there. This is how his business began.

In 1955, he moved Nakagamas to 322 2nd Ave S, the same location you can find them at today. He built the store in a way that allowed for his family to live in the back, while the storefront occupied the other side. Keeping the business in the family was always the plan as the store has long been the pride of the family. Ken was the most eager out of himself and his four sisters to become involved in the business. Following his graduation from the University of Calgary, he contemplated becoming an accountant. However, his father encouraged him to come and try envisioning his future at the store. Since then, Ken has been an active and contributing member of the downtown community in a variety of ways. He was additionally part of the original city and citizen task force that started the Downtown Lethbridge BRZ and wrote the original bylaws. He eventually sat on the BRZ’s board twice before getting involved with other community organizations such as the Heart of Our City Committee. 

“Downtown has always been my home.”

Ken retold stories from his childhood in the 50’s, where movies would be brought into town from Japan and shown at the local theatre. This would usually happen on Sunday afternoons and draw out the entire Japanese community. “I remember my father and I rushing back home as soon as the movie finished, because the store would literally fill up with Japanese people from all over the city who’d be looking to do some shopping. There has always been a community spirit within the store itself”. Nakagama’s became an informal social center for Japanese people who knew each other socially or through church. 

Outside of store hours, Ken enjoys curling in the winter, golfing in the summer, and spending time with his daughter, Kendra. Kendra will be taking over the family business in the future, fulfilling her childhood wishes. According to Kendra, she was essentially born and raised inside the store. She vividly described stories and pictures of her being pushed around in a stroller around the store. Customers will often come in and tell her how they remember when she was learning how to walk or when she was born. When she graduated high school, she completed 2 years of business administration at the Lethbridge College before finishing her bachelors of International Management at the University of Lethbridge. She admitted to doing so primarily to embark on a foreign exchange semester so she could go to Japan. Throughout her educational career, she became involved in the Integrated Management Experience (IME) and the Kodiaks Curling team where she eventually competed on multiple levels and won club championships. Curling has long been a passion of Kendra’s since she was 10 years old. She began working full time at the store in 2012, and particularly enjoys talking to the customers, who she more commonly refers to as friends. Some of which remember her Grandpa dropping off groceries at their farms over 60 years ago.

Nakagamas are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, landing them amongst the longest standing businesses in Downtown. Adaptation and evolving their business methods are factors that have led them to this point. The most recent example of this came 8 years ago when they became a seller for Bosch kitchen appliances, with a primary focus on mixers. Over time, the addition of this product has grown into a second business under the same roof. This development eventually saw them land a role as Canada’s service representative for the Bosch mixer two years ago. This same business-mentality and drive to evolve the store is nothing new to the family, and dates back to the store’s origins in the 50’s. “The biggest thing that I think catapulted my father’s business was rice. The rice that was available to the Japanese community in Southern Alberta wasn’t really conducive to the Japanese diet. A lot of it was long grain style, more oriented towards the Chinese diet. Short or medium grain rice was not available. He found out from someone that in San Francisco, there was a hotel that served really good Japanese-style rice. He wrote a letter, threw some money in an envelope, and sent it to the hotel owner and asked “Where do you get your rice from?”. He was then introduced to Nomura & Co, who was the one who developed Kokuho rose rice and Kokuho rice. When he heard my father was interested, they immediately set up a business transaction and my father was the first to bring this brand of rice into Canada. That really helped because all the Japanese people then wanted this type of rice, Japanese style, it was excellent. That really gave him a base off which he could further build his business.”

As a niche destination store, Ken believes that Downtown provides a landscape for unique businesses, specialty restaurants, specialty products, and entrepreneurial individuals to boom and succeed.