Community spirit helps local Asian stores survive pandemic
The owners of three Asian grocery stores in New Haven reflected on their interactions with community members during the pandemic.
Sophia Zhao, Staff Illustrator
Every day, Yoon-ock Kim carefully arranges the small piles of beef and vegetables on her grill at Oriental Pantry on Orange Street. Those hot bowls of bibimbap are among her customers’ favorite. They are mostly college students from the area, who are often curious not just about Korean cuisine, but also about how Kim came to be here.
Six blocks away, Hanmi Sim sells out of her handmade kimbap only a couple of hours after opening her store, Hanmi Oriental Food & Gift Shop, for the day. On the other side of the Elm City, Lorri Xu helps her husband wrangle a live carp into a tank to sell at Million Asian Market.
All three women came to the United States more than 20 years ago. They are the backbone of New Haven’s Asian grocery stores. Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic, the women have each found their own ways to thrive.
Kim has lived in the Elm City since 1978. She came to New Haven from South Korea, studying at Southern Connecticut State University while her husband went to Yale. Kim worked in Sterling Memorial Library until 1988 when her friend, the former owner of Oriental Pantry, moved back to Korea. Kim took over the store.
“When I came here, our plan [was] just to finish our studies and go back to my country,” said Kim. “That [was] my plan but God’s plan is different.”
Kim said she took over the business because she loves having her own store. She used to own a Japanese and Korean restaurant on the corner of Trumbull and Whitney Avenue as well — but said she gave up on the business because her husband complained that she was too busy.
In addition to selling classic Korean dishes like japchae, ssamjang and kimchi, Kim’s shelves are lined with cultural items from all over Asia. Red and white painted statuettes gaze proudly out at the store. Beside them, a handwritten note informs customers that the statuettes are called ‘Daruma dolls’ and are used as charms for the fulfillment of wishes. To Kim, Oriental Pantry isn’t just a grocery store or a restaurant. It’s a cultural center.
“I like to introduce Korean food and culture to the New Haven area,” said Kim. “New Haven [has] a lot of international flavors — I love [it].”
Hanmi Sim, the owner of Hanmi Oriental Food & Gift Shop on State Street, also enjoys sharing Korean culture with the New Haven community. In her store, paintings of women wearing traditional Hanbok clothing, Korean books and ceramic vases are hidden between rows of imported dumplings, sauces and noodles. Hanmi gave a brief rendition of the folk song Arirang as she reminisced on her roots.
Hanmi moved to the Elm City from Korea 20 years ago because her family was seeking new opportunities, though she said she misses Korea. She last visited five years ago when her son got married. But in New Haven, she said she has found not only opportunities but also friendship with her customers.
“Annyeonghaseyo!” said Dante Petti, a New Haven local who strode up to the counter to give Hanmi a fist bump. His favourite kimbap was sold out for the day, but that isn’t the only reason why he visits the store so often. He comes here to practice his Korean, buy ingredients to cook up his own Asian dishes and to support the city’s mom and pop businesses.
“I recently started learning Korean,” said Petti. “[Hanmi] is very nice and helped me. She has taught me several words.”
Such community support has also been crucial to the success of Million Asian Market in Ninth Square, which is co-owned by Lorri Xu and her husband Zhi Yong Wang. Their store is twice the size of Oriental Pantry and has entire sections for imported fruits, vegetables and live seafood. Hustling past each other, the couple rearrange Chinese decorations and boxes of Japanese snacks.
Wang and Xu used to work for the same company back in Beijing and they have been married for 36 years. The couple moved to New Haven from Long Island in 2009 when Xu read in a Chinese newspaper that someone was selling the store.
“In our first year and second year, my business [was] not really good,” said Xu. “The people and the Chinese American customers helped me a lot.”
Xu said she likes New Haven because it is quiet and the people are nice. She said she came to America because she wanted to change her life.
But life here turned out to be tougher than she expected, largely because they arrived speaking very little English. Wang and Xu often wake up at three or four in the morning to set up the store for the day. The couple do everything from cleaning to store repairs.
Still, the couple said they were glad that their grocery store has given opportunities to their children. Their son owns his own business in South Carolina and their daughter is going to study design at college next year.
“These are paintings from my daughter,” Xu said, gazing at portraits arranged behind the cash register. “Lots of customers love [them].”
But after the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. last March, customers had fewer opportunities to appreciate the paintings at Million Asian Market. COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines hit local businesses hard in New Haven. The Asian grocery stores were no exception.
To deal with the challenges of the pandemic, Xu and Wang shortened their store’s hours and reduced the frequency of their trips to New York to pick up fresh produce. Similarly, Kim had to let go of her part time helpers, cut down on hours and faced supply chain issues during the fall of last year.
Kim faced another setback in March, when Oriental Pantry was robbed. The window was broken and $200 was stolen from the cash register. But it was that community spirit that helped Kim pull through.
Yale students Kayley Estoesta ‘22 and Lauren Kim ‘21 have been working on Kitchen Relaunch, an initiative that aims to help small restaurant owners like Yoon-ock Kim get through the pandemic. Estoesta and Lauren Kim helped Yoon-ock Kim set up a website, post on social media pages and fill out government loan and grant applications. After the robbery, the two students helped Kim raise $17,000 through GoFundMe. Their initial target was only $2000.
Kim said she was moved when she found out about how much money the fundraiser collected. Initially, she didn’t think the fundraiser was necessary because she planned to try and cover the costs herself. She said the efforts of community members made her “rethink America.”
“America is running because the regular people here are supportive ,” Kim said. “I thought this is only [a] little mom and pop grocery [store] but my community [loves] this place. They want me to keep [it] forever.”
For Estoesta and Lauren Kim, helping at Oriental Pantry gives them a little piece of home.
“Being Asian American myself and coming to Yale, the lack [of Asian] culinary options or our grocery items has definitely been a struggle,” Estoesta said. “Coming to Oriental Pantry and having everything I need there is always a comfort for me.”
Oriental Pantry is located at 486 Orange Street, Hanmi Oriental Food & Gift Shop at 1008 State Street and Million Asian Market at 15 Orange Street.