Jenny Chen, Chairman of Grand Asia Markets- Two Dreams

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 Jenny Chen is the chairman of the board of Grand Asia Markets, the first and largest ethnic supermarkets in North Carolina.

Corner groceries and general stores have a long tradition as immigrant businesses in America. Many of the earliest Chinese in the American South in smaller southern towns ran corner grocery and general stores, once called “Jew Stores” because many of them were originally owned by Jewish immigrants who settled in the South.

In California, many Chinese corner groceries parlayed discount pricing and buying large lots of goods into some of the first supermarkets. These Chinese-owned supermarkets were family-owned and often hid their ethnic origins with names like Bel Air, Farmers’ Markets, and Giant Foods. In the early 1970’s, unionization and corporate chains like Safeway and Lucky forced the Chinese supermarket chains to the fringes. During this period, the corner grocery and convenience market niche was filled by Korean and Indian immigrants. Indian families also became prominent in the motel business while Vietnamese families dominated nail salons and west coast Cambodians opened hundreds of doughnut shops.

Alice, Jenny and Richard _early days in Raleigh

In the early 90’s, the corporate supermarket chains began to see competition from broad-based discount chains like Costco, Target and Wallmart; more targeted premium markets like Whole Foods; and a new breed of ethnic supermarket. The ethnic supermarket adopts the look of the modern supermarket with its wider aisles, elaborate displays, white refrigerated displays, warehouse/sized spaces, and parking lots, but closer inspection reveals a wider selection of produce, bilingual signage, ethnically targeted grooming products, less familiar cuts of meat, and merchandise previously available only in small specialty stores. In addition, ethnic supermarkets feature large restaurant sections with fare that does not compromise with American mainstream preferences.

MF: Where did you grow up?

JC: I was born in Taiwan. My parents had left southern China (Zhejiang province?) in 1949 after the Communist takeover. My father worked for the government, but later became a real estate developer.

MF: What brought you to the United States?

JC: From early childhood, I had two dreams: I wanted to see the world and I wanted to start my own business. When I was twenty-five, I got the chance to come to West Virginia to study computer science. My now ex-husband got a job in Little Rock, Arkansas, so I finished my degree at University of Arkansas Little Rock in 1986. My then brother-in-law was in North Carolina and he encouraged us to settle here.

My husband found work as a structural engineer and I got a position with the U.S. Postal Service Data Center in Raleigh where I stayed for twelve years. Our children, Alice and Richard grew up here. As they got a little more independent, I wanted to get back to my dream of starting my own business.

MF: What was the Chinese community like in the Triangle then?

JC: There were groups of Chinese families that would get together.

MF: Did the Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, and American Born Chinese mix much then?

JC: Most of our friends were from Taiwan. It wasn’t really a political thing. At that point, the cultures were very different.

MF: When you came to the United States, had you ever been to the Chinese mainland?

JC: No, I didn’t visit until 1993. My mother’s family had stayed. I didn’t meet my grandfather until 1997. The family set up a reunion in our home town. We used to have to send letters to our relatives on the mainland from post offices in the United States, because you couldn’t send them directly between Taiwan and the Mainland.

MF: Wow!

JC: 1997 was a busy year. It was the same year we opened Grand Asia. My father had visited from Taiwan. A friend of his had suggested that we consider the market business because many of the Asian grocery stores in America weren’t good, fresh, or fancy. We decided to open one here on a larger scale.

MF: Did you have any experience in the grocery business then?

JC: None, though I had learned a lot about applying systems analysis to a complex business from my years with the postal service data center.

MF: Was Grand Asia an immediate success?

JC: It took a little while. We brought in managers and workers from New York and Philadelphia at first. Some didn’t work out. My husband and I also divorced in 2001. I eventually found a very good manager from New York around 2004 who taught us a little different approach and then moved on.

MF: Different in what way?

JC: Originally, if we were selling 20 bottles of a certain kind of water each day, we might have a hundred in stock. He had has put out stacks of five hundred bottles not just of that brand, but of several different brands. Customers got the message that not only did we have what they might be looking for, we had lots of it and plenty of choices. It got them more excited.

In 2004, we committed to that vision by tripling the size of Grand Asia to 28,000 square feet with a million dollar remodel.

MF: That’s a big risk!

JC: A lot of people thought we were crazy. Traditional Asian businesses are very cash oriented; you don’t spend what you don’t have.

(Asian immigrant businesses often started with pools of cash drawn from a variety of investors who would take turns opening new businesses after the success of the initial efforts. Prior to 1960, mainstream banks frequently would not lend to prospective immigrant entrepreneurs. The 19th and early 20th century also included a number of bank failures and currency shifts in China that reinforced the traditional Chinese distrust of banks. It was not unusual for Asian property buyers in America to come to the close of a transaction with a paper bag filled with cash.
The informal ethnic neighborhood or extended family funding system was extremely effective, but it also had its limitations. Confusion about ownership interests and pressure to spread the opportunities could stymie attempts to expand or modernize)

MF: But it worked.

JC: We opened a second 35,000 square foot store in Charlotte in 2010. My daughter runs the Charlotte store and my son, Richard, runs the one in the Triangle.

MF: Where are your workers from?

JC: The two stores currently have 160 employees and most of them come from China, though we have employees of all races and a mix of nationalities, Asian and non-Asian. Grand Asia is the first job in the United States for many of our Chinese employees. One of the funny things is that my children’s Mandarin was not all that fluent, because they grew up in North Carolina. They didn’t think it was cool to be bilingual until they were in high school. They can now run staff meetings in Mandarin, because of Grand Asia they had to use the language more.

MF: How much of Grand Asia is groceries and how much is pre-prepared food?

JC: It’s about 85% groceries.

(the restaurant inside Grand Asia, though informal, is one of the better Chinese restaurants in the Triangle)

MF: Is there any product that you’ve wound up selling a lot of that you didn’t expect to be selling at all?

JC: Definitely, bubble tea. (Jenny provides me with a glass of bubble tea, a mixture of black tea, chewy tapioca balls, dairy and other ingredients that first appeared in Taiwan in the late 1980’s) People often tell us that we have the best bubble tea they’ve had in America. Our bakery chef brought the recipe from Philadelphia. (fwiw, I don’t disagree)

MF: Before you expanded Grand Asia, had you visited any of the Ranch 99 Markets on the west coast?
(Ranch 99, the largest Asian supermarket chain in the United States started in the predominantly Vietnamese areas of Orange County)

JC: I met with their President before our 2004 expansion. It’s a strange coincidence, but we realized that we’d gone to middle school together in Taiwan.

MF: Are most of your customers Asian?

JC: It’s actually about 40% non-Asian, 30% non-Chinese Asians, and 40% Chinese. There are a lot of Korean stores in the Triangle, so we tend to get fewer Koreans.

MF: So, it sounds like you got to achieve both of your childhood dreams: you saw the world and became a successful entrepreneur.
JC: I guess it worked out that way.

MF: What brought you to the United States?

JC: From early childhood, I had two dreams: I wanted to see the world and I wanted to start my own business. When I was twenty-five, I got the chance to come to West Virginia to study computer science. My now ex-husband got a job in Little Rock, Arkansas, so I finished my degree at University of Arkansas Little Rock in 1986. My then brother-in-law was in North Carolina and he encouraged us to settle here.

My husband found work as a structural engineer and I got a position with the U.S. Postal Service Data Center in Raleigh where I stayed for twelve years. Our children, Alice and Richard grew up here. As they got a little more independent, I wanted to get back to my dream of starting my own business.

MF: What was the Chinese community like in the Triangle then?

JC: There were groups of Chinese families that would get together.

MF: Did the Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, and American Born Chinese mix much then?

Richard, Jenny, Alice in 2017

JC: Most of our friends were from Taiwan. It wasn’t really a political thing. At that point, the cultures were very different.

MF: When you came to the United States, had you ever been to the Chinese mainland?

JC: No, I didn’t visit until 1993. My mother’s family had stayed. I didn’t meet my grandfather until 1997. The family set up a reunion in our home town. We used to have to send letters to our relatives on the mainland from post offices in the United States, because you couldn’t send them directly between Taiwan and the Mainland.

MF: Wow!

JC: 1997 was a busy year. It was the same year we opened Grand Asia. My father had visited from Taiwan. A friend of his had suggested that we consider the market business because many of the Asian grocery stores in America weren’t good, fresh, or fancy. We decided to open one here on a larger scale.

MF: Did you have any experience in the grocery business then?

JC: None, though I had learned a lot about applying systems analysis to a complex business from my years with the postal service data center.

MF: Was Grand Asia an immediate success?

JC: It took a little while. We brought in managers and workers from New York and Philadelphia at first. Some didn’t work out. My husband and I also divorced in 2001. I eventually found a very good manager from New York around 2004 who taught us a little different approach and then moved on.

MF: Different in what way?

JC: Originally, if we were selling 20 bottles of a certain kind of water each day, we might have a hundred in stock. He had has put out stacks of five hundred bottles not just of that brand, but of several different brands. Customers got the message that not only did we have what they might be looking for, we had lots of it and plenty of choices. It got them more excited.

In 2004, we committed to that vision by tripling the size of Grand Asia to 28,000 square feet with a million dollar remodel.

MF: That’s a big risk!

JC: A lot of people thought we were crazy. Traditional Asian businesses are very cash oriented; you don’t spend what you don’t have.

(Asian immigrant businesses often started with pools of cash drawn from a variety of investors who would take turns opening new businesses after the success of the initial efforts. Prior to 1960, mainstream banks frequently would not lend to prospective immigrant entrepreneurs. The 19th and early 20th century also included a number of bank failures and currency shifts in China that reinforced the traditional Chinese distrust of banks. It was not unusual for Asian property buyers in America to come to the close of a transaction with a paper bag filled with cash.

The informal ethnic neighborhood or extended family funding system was extremely effective, but it also had its limitations. Confusion about ownership interests and pressure to spread the opportunities could stymie attempts to expand or modernize)

MF: But it worked.

JC: We opened a second 35,000 square foot store in Charlotte in 2010. My daughter runs the Charlotte store and my son, Richard, runs the one in the Triangle.

MF: Where are your workers from?

JC: The two stores currently have 160 employees and most of them come from China, though we have employees of all races and a mix of nationalities, Asian and non-Asian. Grand Asia is th

family photo 2017, Richard’s wedding

e first job in the United States for many of our Chinese employees. One of the funny things is that my children’s Mandarin was not all that fluent, because they grew up in North Carolina. They didn’t think it was cool to be bilingual until they were in high school. They can now run staff meetings in Mandarin, because of Grand Asia they had to use the language more.

MF: How much of Grand Asia is groceries and how much is pre-prepared food?

JC: It’s about 85% groceries.

(the restaurant inside Grand Asia, though informal, is one of the better Chinese restaurants in the Triangle)

MF: Is there any product that you’ve wound up selling a lot of that you didn’t expect to be selling at all?

JC: Definitely, bubble tea. (Jenny provides me with a glass of bubble tea, a mixture of black tea, chewy tapioca balls, dairy and other ingredients that first appeared in Taiwan in the late 1980’s) People often tell us that we have the best bubble tea they’ve had in America. Our bakery chef brought the recipe from Philadelphia. (fwiw, I don’t disagree)

MF: Before you expanded Grand Asia, had you visited any of the Ranch 99 Markets on the west coast?

(Ranch 99, the largest Asian supermarket chain in the United States started in the predominantly Vietnamese areas of Orange County)

JC: I met with their President before our 2004 expansion. It’s a strange coincidence, but we realized that we’d gone to middle school together in Taiwan.

MF: Are most of your customers Asian?

JC: It’s actually about 40% non-Asian, 30% non-Chinese Asians, and 40% Chinese. There are a lot of Korean stores in the Triangle, so we tend to get fewer Koreans.

MF: So, it sounds like you got to achieve both of your childhood dreams: you saw the world and became a successful entrepreneur.

JC: I guess it worked out that way.