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Originally published Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Rice shortage hits home in Seattle

Steve Kim worried when he saw the rows of empty rice pallets at the Sodo Costco earlier this month. A laminated sign apologizing for the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Steve Kim worried when he saw the rows of empty rice pallets at the Sodo Costco earlier this month. A laminated sign apologizing for the shortage did little to console the owner of three area teriyaki restaurants.

"I call Costco stores every day, three or four times a day, to find out when their rice shipments are coming in," Kim said.

A global frenzy for the commodity has caused unrest across Asia, Africa and Australia, spurring some countries to limit exports on rice. Now Seattle-area grocery retailers and restaurateurs say the rice panic has made its way to the Northwest.

Recent reports of grocery- and warehouse-store aisles without rice have panicked many area business owners and families who use large quantities of the imported jasmine and California-grown Calrose varieties.

Employees at area Costco stores say they have seen entire pallets filled with hundreds of bags of the rice sell out in minutes.

The supply crunch has been especially painful for the area's family-owned Asian restaurants.

Todd Young, a warehouse manager at Costco's Sodo location, said he has never seen such a shortage.

Calls from restaurant owners who complain about rising prices and limited availability are at an all-time high, he said.

Many of those complaining are the Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Koreans who make a living of selling their traditional cuisines to Americans, Young said.

"They're buying it up as fast as they can," Young said.

To beat out his competitors, Kim has resorted to dispatching employees to wait outside of Costco stores expecting rice shipments.

For the time being, Kim said he will continue his mad dash for rice.

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He compared the process to buying his Nintendo Wii a few months ago.

"When the Wii came out, people were fighting each other for the sake of entertainment," Kim said.

"This is a fight for our livelihood."

Karen Johnson: 206-464-2393 or karenjohnson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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