It's just after 9 a.m. on a Monday morning and an ice delivery truck has just pulled up in front of Ono Seafood Market in SanTana. Owner Tony Tuipala, a towering Samoan born in Hawaii and raised in California, unlocks the front door to take care of the store's daily prep before his employees show up for work at 9:30.
Operating a seafood business that isn't a fixture inside one of Orange County's bustling Asian shopping centers in today's economic climate is extremely daunting. Yet Ono, tucked away in the corner of a sleepy shopping plaza across the street from SanTana's Centennial Park, has successfully served the Mexican and niche immigrant communities of the city for the past 20 years.
"The majority of our customers are Hispanic," says Tuipala. "Then we have Colombians, South Africans, El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Haitians, African Americans, Samoans and Hawaiians that make up the other five percent."
According to Tuipala, Ono Seafood initially operated out of the back of a truck by his wife's parents before they opened the brick and mortar location in 1992. They managed and operated the store for 10 years before selling it to a family member who then sold it to Tuipala and his wife in October 2011. Since taking over the shop, Tuipala says his sales have actually increased a good 55 to 60 percent.
"We don't advertise," Tuipala says. "Everything is word of mouth. Our customer service goes a long way to the point where my customers will come back no matter what the price is on any product that we have in the store. I think that says a lot about what we do here."
Tuipala's concern for his customers is only trumped by his care for his employees' well-being. When he speaks with them, he is extremely patient and interested to see how they doing and how they are coming along with their training. He's always looking to make minor adjustments to improve customer service and build his business even further, he says.
"Right now we are testing a few things that have to do with shrimp and filets," Tuipala says. "My wife used to run a taco truck at the Orange Coast College swap meet. Out there, she would make shrimp tacos and fish tacos which were incredible."
Tuipala attributes most of Ono's sales to tilapia and catfish. "If we sell out, we sell out. I don't want to have to hold to much product and have it become stale or old," Tuipala says. Besides their top sellers, the store also carries a variety of seafood that ranges from shrimp, which comes in several different sizes, to salmon, scallops, swai, pollock, baby octopus, smelt and langostino lobster. He even stocks a few Samoan staples like imported corned beef, green bananas, and saifun noodles. An in-store fry service is also available for any of their seafood offerings.
"We've been frying since 1992," Tuipala says. "Usually in the summer when kids are off, parents tend to have us fry their seafood because they don't want to cook too much and during the winter most will just take it home as is."
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As 9:30 a.m hits, Tony's employees start to show up for work. His main fish guy strolls through the front door, Tony greets him in Spanish, gives him a high five and excuses himself briefly to check in with his newest hire.
"This guy was slanging Rice Crispy Treats in a box at my store and asked me if I wanted to buy one," Tuipala tells the Weekly. "He told me he was just trying to help out his mom. Those are hustlers, man. Once I saw that, I offered him a job and hired him on the spot. I think he'll be here permanently."
Ono Seafood Market, 2710 W. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 662-2899