FARGO — Joe Hoglund isn’t one for grand celebrations.
However, his father, Will, the founder of Tochi Products who passed away in 2013, was. Since then, the considerably more laid-back Joe has been running the show at Fargo’s first specialty and ethnic grocery store.
It’s why Tochi’s 50th anniversary came and went last week with little fanfare, which was perfectly fine by Joe. It would have been a safe bet that Will, who Joe categorized as a “go-getter,” would have been banging the drum to mark the occasion, hosting events at the store, eager to celebrate any sort of anniversary.
While Joe has been considerably quieter in celebrating the anniversary than his father would have, his unassuming manner belies the pride he takes in carrying on Will’s vision over the past eight years.
For Joe, it’s a simple matter; if not for Tochi, he doesn’t know what he’d be doing. With the days of full-service gas stations in the past, he joked pumping gas and washing windows would be off the table. “For the most part, I don’t know what else I’d do,” he told The Forum. “I’ve kind of just always been here and I believe in what my dad started. I’d like to continue to keep it going, keep it viable from there.”
“I guess I’d rather be doing this,” he added.
A downtown fixture
Founded in 1971 by his parents, Tochi is the metro area’s first ethnic and specialty grocery store. Hoglund’s mother, a second-generation Japanese-American and Minneapolis native, gave the store an Asian influence. “She was living in the culture down there and brought it up here,” Hoglund remarked.
Over time though, Tochi’s product range expanded, largely due to the incoming students at the metro area’s three major universities. Vietnamese and east Indian products soon became fixtures on Tochi’s shelves. “They came and saw the potential that the three universities held here and a lack of something like this in the area,” Hoglund explained of his parents’ reasoning for opening Tochi.
The building which stands at 1111 2nd Ave. N. and now houses Tochi’s own private-label essential oils, ethnic spices, bulk products and more has a long history as a key piece of downtown Fargo. “Just walking in the store, I think it’s a pretty unique location,” Hoglund said.
The structure dates back to the late 19th century when it was constructed to house the Fargo and Southern Railroad depot. According to the North Dakota State University archives, the railroad was in operation from 1884 to Dec. 7, 1931, when the last solely-passenger train left the depot. “This location has always been a magnet for people and bringing people through the doors,” Hoglund explained.
Mixed passenger and freight trains ran until Oct. 31, 1956, and by 1961 the depot had been abandoned. In 1971, local interior designer Jack Akre bought the passenger station and restored it into the “Depo,” which held 13 arts-oriented businesses. A 1974 fire destroyed the Depo and by 1975 it was demolished.
The adjacent freight house, however, survived, and in 1978 Will Hoglund moved Tochi Products into it from its previous home at 303 Roberts St. Still today, a railroad crossbuck sits outside Tochi as a memento of the site’s past.
'Ups and downs'
Joe Hoglund has taken in quite a bit of Fargo’s history from inside the shop.
His time at Tochi dates back to his childhood, when he worked to stock shelves for allowance money. He received his first paycheck in the fifth grade. “That was pretty cool,” he recalled.
Over the years, Hoglund — himself the second-generation of Tochi ownership — has seen countless parents bring their children into the store, only to see those same children return with children of their own.
It speaks to the effort his parents put in to build a business that resonates with people. “My parents founded a good business. Everybody’s got to eat and take care of themselves,” Hoglund explained. “We focus on good food, good nutrition and good health. Those are keys in people’s lives and something that’s always going to be around.”
It wasn’t always easy though. “(It’s been) ups and downs,” he said. “I recall my dad saying in the beginning he was lucky to get enough money in the till to have supper for the night.”
Joe has also witnessed downtown morph into what it is today, a thriving neighborhood and tourist attraction alike. “The boom of downtown has been something,” he said. “All the buildings that have gone up in this neighborhood, that’s increased the foot traffic dramatically.”
When the Fargo and Southern Railroad began operations on the site, it was said to ensure the westward expansion of downtown Fargo, Joe explained, a prognostication which has held true. “It’s hard to believe how far west we go now,” he commented. “It’s been exciting to see the progression that everything’s gone through down there.”
The next 50 years
Not one for fanfare, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Joe also isn’t inclined to make predictions about the future of Tochi. “Paying bills and food on the plate,” in addition to keeping customers coming back is his immediate focus, he said.
As a one-man shop, he takes it day by day, especially throughout the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Just the way things are, I’m kind of just maintaining. My vision is pretty limited to the day-to-day,” he said. “I don’t really have any long-term visions other than to just do what we do.”
Thoughts of his father are still close by, both for Joe and customers. Some of Joe’s favorite memories growing up in Tochi are seeing Will in the back, poring over paperwork. “I still have those visions. I still think I’m going to see him pop around the corner every once in a while,” Joe remarked. “I still have dreams that he’s running around here. He’s still in a lot of people’s memories I think.”
If all goes well in the coming years, a third generation of Tochi ownership could be on the horizon. Joe’s four-year-old daughter, Vivian, has already been exposed to the store, though Hoglund said he wouldn’t mind seeing her pursue a different career. “If the bills are still being paid and this is still around, I would like nothing more than to see her do some of this, but I would probably lean against it, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I hope she can find something that satisfies her other than this, but I wouldn’t say no to it. If it’s something that’s around, it would be an honor.”
Asked whether or not he believes Tochi has another 50 years in it, Hoglund took a humorous tone. “I don’t know if I do, but I would hope so,” he joked.
While he doesn’t know if Tochi will reach its centennial, Joe is certain that the past 50 years would not have been possible without the support of family, friends and customers. “I’d really like to thank all the people that have made this happen and have made this 50 years possible,” he said. “We definitely couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support we’ve gotten. Hopefully we can continue to keep the quality coming and products that people want so we can see a few more years out of this.”
Perhaps then he’d consider a grand celebration.