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VOICES

Korean, Black Merchants Seek Peaceful Niches

April 25, 1993

Many small markets were destroyed or forced to close during last spring's riots. Ryan Song of the Korean-American Grocers Assn., which has 3,500 local members, and Etha Robinson and Byron Jamerson of the fledgling 75-member African-American Food Assn., discussed their groups' efforts to develop understanding and cooperation. The 17-year-old Mexican American Grocers Assn., which has 12,000 members , declined to join the discussion. The round - table talk was conducted by Laurie K. Schenden.

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Q: The African-American Food Assn. was just formed in January. Did the riots uncover a need for this type of organization?

Robinson: I don't think it moved faster because of the unrest; I think it moved faster because I had the time to pursue it. The concept started about three years ago when I tried to market my cookies and I couldn't find any avenues to support me. I called all the major bakers in Los Angeles--African-American bakers--to assist me and I couldn't get any. I figured there must be a retail bakers' association or something, but they weren't concerned about folks like me.

Jamerson: We African-Americans have never really been focused, never had the opportunities from the manufacturing side, from the distribution side or from the retail side. We obviously participate as consumers, and there's an awareness that there's more opportunity than we've previously realized. We're looking to make some alliances with some existing organizations--to go in and get our own niche.

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Q: How and why did the Korean-American Grocers Assn. get started?

Song: The group started as kind of a business association which addressed common problems, such as contacting suppliers, getting the recognition and also getting their relationships established. We had the same kind of interests as people who were in other occupations: to get together and see what kind of concerns they can address. Now, 10 years later, especially after the riots, because we have a large number of people, we have been getting into other areas: government relations, community relations, public relations.

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Q: Have Korean businesses become an important part of the community?

Song: Yes, especially in the South-Central area, where the big markets would not go, and there are not many financial institutions. There are a lot of inner-city problems, and these grocers come in as corner markets, convenience stores where residents can walk to and from, rather than going miles to go to a big market. Also they provide check-cashing services . . . and a lot of stores run on a credit basis.

Robinson: The African-American Food Assn. is coming from another vantage point because there are many grocery stores, liquor stores and convenience stores already in existence. We're not a large group of people who actually own stores or markets. My major concern was distribution. If you have a product, you need to have a method to get it where you want to sell it, and you need a place to sell it. Rather than each person doing it as an individual, we saw a need for there to be some way to make it more efficient.

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Q: Korean grocers have been criticized by the African-American community of late. What is the association's position?

Song: First of all, by just looking, our numbers have grown tremendously, but at the same time the riots kind of highlighted the fact that if you don't have the political representation, we as a group can suffer. As much as we don't want to get involved in politics, we were forced to. We're trying be good grocers, to meet the communities' needs without getting involved in too much politics. To our dismay, sometimes we have to play politics rather than be a good businessman.

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Q: Why have Koreans had difficulties running businesses in the African-American community?

Jamerson: Where the Koreans have been remiss in their business approach is that they simply have transplanted a lot of people into the community and they do not support their stores; we support their stores. If there had been more PR, if they had done this as a partnership with the community, as opposed to coming into the community and simply extracting from it. . . . The best advertising is word-of-mouth. When the community finds out that there are African-American-manufactured products in those stores, we think we can sell our products not only in the black community but wherever there is a store.

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