In 2016, the famous Japanese bargain store Daiso took a chance on a pop-up experiment at San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria, a massive shopping center in the city’s southwest. Yuriko Moody, Daiso’s regional manager for the Bay Area, had long been dreaming of opening a permanent location there, offering everything from lychee gummy candy to panda neck pillows and $4 denim aprons, but she needed proof it would work.
“I was pushing the headquarters,” Moody said. “We should open a store over there!”
The experiment was a success, and finally, seven years later, her dream has come true. In July, the popular brand, known for its humongous range of affordable, high-quality Japanese products and snacks, opened its 20th Northern California location in Stonestown. Even Mayor London Breed came for the ribbon-cutting.
But Daiso’s expansion into what is arguably San Francisco’s only successful mall is not just some blip. Stonestown Galleria—located in a more residential, less touristy area than other San Francisco shopping centers—is thriving, with its post-pandemic recovery boosted by Asian restaurants and retail stores.
Unlike San Francisco’s original Japantown, where the community came together and eventually flourished because of intense racism, this new cluster of businesses has coalesced because of the enormous popularity of Japanese culture—everything from sweet beef udon soup to Pocky snacks and chopstick rests in the shape of sleeping cats.
Built in 1952, Stonestown began as an ordinary American shopping mall, originally with an Emporium and a Woolworth, and anchored by the usual department stores.
“We had an underperforming Macy's and Nordstrom,” Darren Iverson, the senior general manager of Stonestown, told The Standard.
By the late 2010s, both of those department stores had closed. During the pandemic, the mall went quiet for a year. The massive spaces those major tenants had vacated gave the mall opportunities to reimagine what the market is, Iverson said. Stonestown reemerged with a Whole Foods and a Regal Cinemas, along with a number of Japanese shops and food vendors, with a strong appeal to younger generations and Asian Americans alike.
San Francisco’s west side—including the Sunset District and Ingleside neighborhoods, as well as nearby Daly City—is home to many Asian Americans. The schools nearby, including as Lowell High School and San Francisco State University, bring lots of young people to the area.
Josh Deckelbaum, the vice president of leasing at Brookfield Properties, which owns Stonestown, said that when Japanese and other Asian brands move in, it might look like a mere trend, but it’s actually a reflection of the leasing team choosing the best retailers in response to the local market and demographics.
“We're trying to find a diverse merchandising mix for everybody,” Deckelbaum said, emphasizing the current retailers are considered the higher-frequency-visit type of business, rather than just the traditional big department store that people may go to only once a month.
Selena Tam, a 19-year-old Sunset District native who grew up going to Stonestown, said she had noticed the mall changing when more Asian brands started to come in.
“Marugame Udon was a classic for me because it’s quick, affordable and reliable,” Tam said. “I also like the basic Japanese-style clothing at Uniqlo, such as their T-shirts or sweaters.”
Now a college student in San Diego, she said she misses the mall often and can’t wait to check out more Asian brands when she comes back to town for Thanksgiving.
Among the Japanese brands, the most prominent one may be the upcoming bowling and arcade center by the Japanese entertainment company Round 1, which will be filling the former Nordstrom space and expected to open by summer 2024.
In early October, during a Bay Area heat wave, customers lined up at Matcha Cafe Maiko in Stonestown to get its signature Japanese-style ice cream.
But what draws them to the place might not only be the heat wave but also a collective effort.
Chris Chin, the shop’s owner, said business in Stonestown has been great, and he’s excited to see more Japanese shops are coming in.
“It just brings more of the same people interested in that Japanese culture into the mall,” Chin said. As a Malaysian Chinese American immigrant, Chin is a fan of Japanese culture, and he said places like Marugame Udon and clothing retailer Uniqlo have become magnets, luring more Japanese brands.
While it may not be a surprise that a mall in a largely Asian neighborhood has a number of Asian chains, the thriving Japanese businesses do not match with the local Japanese population. In fact, San Francisco’s population is only about 1% Japanese, while the majority of the city's overall Asian community consists of people of Chinese descent.
Moody, a Japanese immigrant living in the Sunset, said Japan’s anime culture has attracted younger generations of different ethnic backgrounds. She also said many people want to visit Japan because of its culture and the perception that the country is safe.
“If they cannot go to Japan, they go to Daiso and they feel like they’re in Japan,” she said.
Iverson says easy public transit access, including multiple buses and the city’s M-Ocean View streetcar line, adds to the mall’s popularity. Its large parking lots make it appealing to west-side car owners and suburban visitors.
Gloria Chan, a mom and a San Francisco native living in Sunset, said she goes to Stonestown almost twice a week for grocery shopping.
“I see the mall evolving,” Chan said. “Whether it’s becoming more Asian-focused, I hope it will help the neighborhood and the community.”
While San Francisco’s Downtown is still struggling, Stonestown mall’s business and sales have surpassed those of 2019, the last year before the pandemic, according to a mall spokesperson. Many more stores are coming in, including the famed Vietnamese fusion concept restaurant Le Soleil.
Six miles away, San Francisco’s Japantown, the oldest in America, is also bouncing back on the strength of its Japanese businesses. It’s near the top of the list of San Francisco neighborhoods with sales tax revenue increases post-pandemic, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The Japantown Community Benefit District said retail vacancy rates are at historic lows.
Within Japantown’s close-knit community, Stonestown’s transformation into a new destination for Japanese food and shopping has triggered mixed feelings.
“I am delighted that they are opening their businesses and promoting Japanese culture,” Rich Hashimoto, a longtime Japantown advocate and president of the Japantown Merchants Association, told The Standard. “I am saddened that the new businesses have chosen Stonestown instead of Japantown.”
Brands like Daiso still see great value in Japantown. Moody said the Daiso shop in Japantown has the highest sales of any Daiso location in the United States.
But Stonestown’s leadership says there’s more than enough demand for Japanese businesses to operate in multiple parts of the city.
“It's an opportunity to revive the community,” said Deckelbaum, the vice president of Stonestown’s parent company. “Give the shopper what they want.”
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org