Ted Oto knew what it was like to grow up in a family where money was scarce, so he decided to become a meat cutter. It was a vocation that, he reasoned, would ensure his family always had food on the table, recalled his daughter.
He went from owning and operating the meat department in a small corner grocery to establishing a grocery store specializing in Asian foods. The patriarch of the family-owned Oto’s Marketplace in Sacramento’s Land Park area died Feb. 20, eight days after his 89th birthday. Despite a lengthy illness, family members said he had continued to handle bookkeeping and other administrative aspects of the business until shortly before his death.
Masashi Ted Oto was born Feb. 12, 1927, in Walnut Grove. His parents immigrated to the United States from Japan and worked for farmers in the area, said his daughter, Cheryl Inouye. In 1942, he and his family were required to leave their home and relocate to the Tule Lake Assembly Center before being assigned to the Gila River Internment Camp in Phoenix, Ariz. Oto was 15 at the time and seemed to take the camp experience in stride. He hung out with his buddies and told stories of how they used to sneak out of the barracks, Inouye said.
When he turned 18, he was drafted into the Army, serving as a cook. He had flat feet, which prevented his assignment to a combat unit, Inouye said.
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After meeting his future wife, Mollie, in 1954, he decided to go to meat-cutting school in Ohio so he would be prepared to support a family. The couple married the following year. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in November.
Inouye said her father always dreamed of owning his own business. He began in 1959 by opening a meat and fish business in Vina Vista Market on 14th Avenue in Sacramento. In 1965, he moved his business to the Food Center at Fruitridge and Freeport boulevards. When the Food Center’s owners decided to retire in 1979, Oto bought them out and expanded his business to include groceries.
“He knew nothing about the grocery business,” Inouye said. “He began thinking that he had bitten off more than he could chew.”
But he persevered and began focusing on Japanese products, including food and gift items.
In 1985, Frank Corti of Corti Brothers Market asked Oto to move to his Courtyard Shopping Center on Freeport Boulevard, where the the Corti family also had a store.
Inouye said her farther was always uneasy about potential rent increases when leasing or renting space. His goal of building his own store was realized in 2007, when Oto’s Marketplace opened at its current location at 4990 Freeport Blvd. He turned 80 that year and retired, but he remained active in the business behind the scenes.
He made the most out of his life. He said he had done everything he wanted to do.
Cheryl Inouye, Ted Oto’s oldest daughter
“He did a lot of the driving, picking up fresh produce,” Inouye said. “At 80, he was driving the van and getting pallets of tangerines.”
Russell Oto, his brother, Michael, and his mother continue to run the business, overseeing a staff of about 50 employees. Russell described his father as a good listener who rarely spoke ill of anyone.
“He listened and let me do what I wanted to do. He had a lot of trust,” the Otos’ oldest son said. Russell started working with his father in the store after school when he was about 10 years old.
Inouye said her father worked six days a week, but he made the most of his Sundays, which were devoted to family activities. She marvels that her parents, after a hard day’s work, had the stamina to go bowling and ballroom dancing on weeknights. She said her father loved music and supported her brothers’ participation in school marching bands.
Her father loved to throw parties. “It gave him an excuse to have a live band,” Inouye said, noting that he favored the music of Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller.
“He made the most out of his life,” she said, recalling a conversation with her father a couple of years ago. “He said he had done everything he wanted to do.”
In addition to Mollie, Oto is survived by sons Russell and Michael and daughters Inouye and Florence Wong, all of Sacramento, as well as six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, 2401 Riverside Blvd. Donations in Oto’s memory may be made to the Sacramento Buddhist Church, ACC Senior Services or the Sacramento Asian Sports Foundation.