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.
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, nevertheless 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 but.
MARTIN: So then, thank you for that. And, clearly, we want to talk about the business, now 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 at that time.
MARTIN: One of the interesting things about your business is you and your brother and your sister all run the business at the same time. How did you get into the organic food business? What gave you the idea?
CHA: Oh, I think we were in the extreme lucky that when we ran into this type of business there, that - where it was very unequalled. 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 before than they should have. I wish they were after all around.
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.
CHA: Yes. When we first started the business, yes, there was a big gap between the price of organic products versus non-organic products, nevertheless now the gap has closed substantially. So, in many cases, we can to tell the truth 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, at heart, all corners of D.C. and - why don't I be the first one to open a store where people will appreciate more in other words 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?
You remember that before 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. Nevertheless, he did apologize, now I did want to ask how you reacted to this.
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 before, 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: 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.