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Trying to Do the Right Thing

Through Funky Merchandising and Generous Customer Care, These Immigrants Break the Stereotype of Insular Korean Grocers

September 05, 2004|Idelle Davidson | Idelle Davidson last wrote for the magazine about Craig Newmark of Craigslist.org.

The flier circulating through Echo Park read: "New Management. Incredible Great Big Prizes. Live DJ Jo-Ski with Corona Girl."

Little by little neighbors arrived at Echo Food Market at noon that February day, drawn by the "Grand Opening" banner, the promise of a rep from the beer company and the blasting of electric funk music.

Many knew or were related to the disc jockey, Jo-Ski of the Renegades, a Japanese Mexican self-proclaimed "ghetto superstar" who had agreed to help out the market's new owners.

"I said on the mike, 'Wow, this looks like the United Nations right here,' " says Jo-Ski, a.k.a. Joe Munemasa Amano, whose family has lived in Echo Park since the '50s. Amano recognized people he knew who had emigrated from Mexico, South America and Central America, and what he calls the "artsy" whites--the entertainers, artists and writers who have moved into the community.

Within an hour, the curious had grown to 150 people milling around with their children, heads bobbing to the music and holding the raffle tickets that were free with any purchase.

New owners Woo Taek Lee, 40, and Ju Hee Lee, 36, who have taken the American names Thomas and Judy, stood amid the throng, shy and beaming, playing host to strangers vying for prizes that included a flat-screen TV, two microwave ovens, heaters, blenders and clothes irons.

The Lees are a departure from the stereotype of the grim-faced, all-business Korean grocer, and they count themselves among a new generation of small-business owners who are trying to find a way into their communities rather than stand apart.

When Thomas, communicating through a translator, speaks about what he calls the stereotype of Korean American small-business owners, his tone is so impassioned that he forgets to slow down so that the translator can capture his words. "We're not all scrooges, we're not all frugal, not all thrifty," he says. "There's only been about a 30-year history of the influx of Koreans to America. We came to America for the opportunity, but it came at a cost. Communication was hard. The work was hard. When non-Koreans look at us, they think we don't look very friendly, like there's a worry in the back of our minds. But that is all changing now. I don't want to hoard everything I make. I want to give back to the community because I am going to live here in the U.S. probably for the rest of my life."

The Lees and their two young daughters arrived in the U.S. four years ago from Korea. Thomas and Judy are college graduates. He studied economics; she studied the import-export business. In Korea, Thomas worked for a cosmetics company, co-owned an Italian furniture store and then opened a restaurant, catering to Americans and other Westerners.

"Both my parents and my wife's parents and my friends all said I was crazy for wanting to leave Korea," Thomas says. "Yet we decided the future of Korea with the politics and the economy didn't look too bright in our minds."

Thomas' original plan was to become a licensed golf instructor and then return to Korea and teach golf. But with a family to feed, he took a job in a supermarket for a couple of years before purchasing Echo Food Market.

It took the Lees three months to settle on this location. They looked at more than 80 stores throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties and picked Echo Park because it was small and quiet, just like Gyeonggi-do, where Thomas grew up. His parents were rice farmers. "I grew up in a province with green pastures and beautiful mountains and rivers," he says. The Lees now live near one of Judy's relatives in Glendale.

By several accounts, the previous owner--also Korean--had let the market run to seed. The Lees describe deteriorating wooden display shelves, a bed in a broken walk-in cooler, less than $4,000 in inventory, no fresh produce and food with expired dates. "He had a couple chips, a couple cans, a couple beer," says store manager Dong Choi, a Korean immigrant who goes by the name Jaycy.

The language barrier--especially English slang--has been a problem for the Lees and Jaycy. They would like to enroll in formal English classes, but they work 12-hour days with one day off a week. Thomas doesn't believe that people should form impressions based on one's social or economic status. "In America, both the president and a beggar can eat a hamburger," he says.

"It was true, I'd have to say, before the riots Korean business owners in South-Central hardly smiled," says Kyeyoung Park, a UCLA professor and urban anthropologist. "There was a drive-by shooting and holdups every day. If you work like that, you just don't have any energy to smile."

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