The Korean-American Story Of Yes! Organic Market

Gary Cha and his family came to the U.S. from South Korea in the 1970s. They opened Yes! Organic Markets in food deserts and other unlikely neighborhoods around Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Cha speaks with host Michel Martin about his heritage, his business and racial tension between some Asian store-owners and African-American residents.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. It's the 4th of July, and we're thinking about freedom and patriotism and, of course, food. In a moment, we'll speak with a couple who's making their kitchen sizzle on their cooking show. They are the stars of "Down Home with the Neelys." It's on the Food Network, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to speak with a man whose business helped change the menu in some unlikely neighborhoods. Organic grocery stores are expected to be found in more affluent areas in the country, but many places where people of color live have few food options.

But that's not true for residents in and around Washington, D.C. who have the Yes! Organic Market in their neighborhoods. There are eight stores, and they are headed by Korean-American Gary Cha and his family. And he's opened some of these stores in places that other business owners have shied away from. And Gary Cha joins us now.

Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

GARY CHA: Thanks for inviting me. I'm honored.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. And, of course, we want to talk about the business, but I want to start with your background. It's the 4th of July, as we said, and a lot of us are thinking about what it means to be an American. And your family came to the U.S. from South Korea in the early 1970s. You were a teenager then.

CHA: Yes.

MARTIN: How did your parents explain the move to you? What were you seeking, here?

CHA: Well, we came here in the early 1970s. Korea was very unstable, where there's always a threat of North Koreans invading. And there was an opportunity for us to come to the United States. And, you know, of course, United States, America, that's the land of opportunity, and this is where everyone can fulfill their dream.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things about your business is you and your brother and your sister all run the business together. How did you get into the organic food business? What gave you the idea?

CHA: Oh, I think we were extremely lucky that when we ran into this type of business there, that - where it was very unique. There just wasn't any other stores with that - selling that type of food, and it sort of fit with what we wanted to do. And we had some family members with some health problems. Both of my parents passed away, I think, a lot earlier than they should have. I wish they were still around.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.

CHA: But I think, had they been in the same type of diet and had they known what we're selling at our stores, I'm thinking maybe they may still be around.

MARTIN: I'm sorry for the loss of your parents. One of the reasons we were excited to talk to you is that a lot of people kind of have an image, I think, in their minds of what a Korean store is - a Korean grocery store. Many people who live in certain urban areas will have this image of, like, the little corner store. But people may not really understand just how exhausting it can be to run one of those kinds of stores.

CHA: Yes. I see...

MARTIN: Just to keep the business afloat...

CHA: I see that every day.

MARTIN: Yeah. People just really almost, like, working themselves to death.

CHA: Yeah. I see that every day. And the first generation Koreans, it's like their mission to sacrifice their life so that their children could have better life, better education. So one of the things that they put most highest priority is making sure their kids get their education from one of the best colleges they could afford. So I see them working in the field where they really don't enjoy, but because of the language barrier or their limited options of what - the income that they can generate, so they run grocery stores or delis.

But, fortunately for me, I'm one of the few people that actually enjoy doing what I'm doing. You know, we don't sell cigarettes. I'm really, really against people smoking cigarettes. I just hate something like that. So we don't sell things that can really cause you harm to your body. And, also, we don't sell lotteries. I think of lottery as like a gambling, so in our store, we don't do any of that. I am passionate about things that we do, and I think I'm lucky.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. It's the 4th of July, a day for celebrating freedom and food. We're talking with an American success story. Gary Cha is one of the entrepreneurs behind the Yes! Organic Market stores in the Washington, D.C. area. He runs the business, along with his brother and sister.

I did want to ask: How is it that you are able to open these stores in areas that have been - if I can use this term - food deserts? I'm particularly interested because people generally have the experience of organic food being more expensive than conventionally prepared products. How do you do it?

CHA: Yes. When we first started the business, yes, there was a big gap between the price of organic products versus non-organic products, but now the gap has closed substantially. So, in many cases, we can actually buy organic products cheaper if you look, on sale, than conventional products. So that gap has shrunk. And just because people are living in the area they call the underserved or food desert, they'll have to drive far to get there, or some people just not have transportation. And that's not right.

And, being in business since '82 in D.C., I got to know, basically, all corners of D.C. and - why don't I be the first one to open a store where people will appreciate more rather than - it's completely saturated. I just - and become just one of the stores. And we try to keep it clean as possible and, every day, I go in there and say: Why don't we clean this area? It needs to be cleaned a little more. It needs to be brighter. We'll replace the light bulbs. Wouldn't you like to see the customer smile more because it's nice and clean?

MARTIN: I want to ask about that, if you don't mind my bringing this up. I do want to touch upon - in a lot of cities across the country, there have been racial tensions between Korean store owners, or Asian store owners and African-American residents. A lot of the stores that you have are in predominantly African-American areas. In some ways, they're in transition, but they still are.

You remember that earlier this year, the former mayor of D.C. - he's a current councilmember, his name is Marion Barry, made some controversial remarks about Asian store owners - derogatory remarks, saying that something needs to be done about, quote, "Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops," unquote. Now, he did apologize, but I did want to ask how you reacted to this.

CHA: I try to analyze what he said. The meaning was - I think what he said was he does not like dirty stores, period. He should not have said Asians, because dirty stores operated by all race. I think that was his mistake.

MARTIN: You're thinking he was saying that he feels that the stores are not kept up nicely because the owners don't respect the residents there.

CHA: Because the store is not clean, that doesn't mean they are disrespecting the neighborhood. A lot of the times, it's like you said earlier, they are spending 10, 12, 16 hours a day. They're working long hours. When you finish work - 14 hours - you have very little energy there to polish up that old floor, this, that. So I think it tends to get ignored. So that's something - if you have been on this side of the business, you'd understand.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, it is, as we said, the 4th of July. How are you going to celebrate?

CHA: I like to spend time with my family, go out to the beach, do a little fishing. And hopefully, there's going to be some crabbing and things like that.

MARTIN: What are your just thoughts on the 4th of July?

CHA: Everyone that lives in this country - they should just stop for a moment and be grateful, thank the people that made this possible for all of these people to be able to live in this country. There's no other place better than the United States to live.

MARTIN: Gary Cha and his brother and sister own and run the Yes! Organic Market stores. It's a chain that can be found in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

Gary Cha, thanks so much for joining us. Happy 4th to you.

CHA: Thank you, Michel, for inviting me, and Happy 4th to you, too.

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