NEW YORK, NY — An immigrant family’s legacy built over years of hard work is being squeezed so tightly by New York City’s market forces that its current guardian hopes his children won’t inherit it.
“I do not want my kids to do this,” said Joo Han from the basement of Han’s Fruit & Vegetable Market, a store at Broadway and W. 93rd St. that’s been a staple of the Upper West Side since the ’70s.
“It’s getting harder and harder every year to turn a profit. I’d rather they had a good, 9-to-5 job if possible.”
For decades, Korean groceries have been a staple of New York City street life, selling fresh, affordable produce long before Whole Foods, FreshDirect and other grocery giants came on the scene.
Han joined the business first as a child, helping his parents, and growing to become a second generation owner who hopes, in a bittersweet way, that there will be no third.
Not that he isn’t proud of the store his mom and dad, Mun Nam Han and Ok Kum Han, founded back when the Upper West side was still considered a dicey area by many New Yorkers. “There are still a lot of good memories in the place,” he says.
But today’s market forces — whether it’s competition or the $20,000-a-month rent — have taken a toll on Han and scores of grocers like him.
A 2011 New York Times article reported there were some 2,500 Korean groceries in New York City in 1995. By 2005, that number had fallen to around 2,000.
He cites another less obvious culprit for the hit on his bottom line in recent years — it’s not the big chains so much, he says, but the small-time fruit merchants who are licensed by the city and sell their produce from push carts right outside his door.
“Bloomberg really set it off,” Han says of the former mayor. “He gave licenses to all these fruit vendors, saying that New York has to eat better. What happened is that all these fruit vendors went and set up shop in front of fruit stores. We can’t complete with somebody that’s not paying rent.”
The story of how Han came to head his parent’s grocery is filled with both happiness and sadness, and full of the ups and downs that come with running a small business.
The family came to the United States in 1978 from Korea. Joo’s father worked at a friend’s store for a couple of years but soon saved enough to open his own place. The original location was on 92nd and Broadway, but within a few years they had moved to the present location a block north.
Han was nine and mostly remembers being surrounded by family.
“You know everyone in my family helped out here on the weekends when we were young,” he said.
While the store was an important aspect of Han’s teenage and college years, it was not always his future. Han went to art school and for a time had a job designing logos for big colleges like the University of North Carolina and the University of Miami.
“When I was going to school, I worked here on the weekend whenever I had time,” he said.
“During that time my dad had other stuff going on. He was also sick. So he couldn’t really be here. So I was helping out with my mom.
“I was doing that for a few years. My dad actually passed away from cancer in 1991. At that time I was helping my mom out because my mom was running the store by herself, so I quit my job and I helped her out for a while. Then I got married and I went back to my job.
“Then my mom got sick with cancer too, so she couldn’t come out to the store anymore. So I quit my job again and came back to the store.” It was 1998.
Joo has worked at the store ever since. It’s still a family affair, as he shares it with his wife Jenny (the two actually met at the store), their son Derek, his brother-in-law Danny and his brother, Tommy. Derek worked in the store on Sundays before recently starting an internship after graduating with a degree in computer science.
“We’ve been here a long time. So you see a lot of my regular customers getting old, you know, I guess that’s the hard thing for us. Because we see them getting old and kind of, you know, we’re losing a lot of them. They’re homebound, or they only come out once in awhile.
It’s tough. A couple of months ago, we had someone pass away, it’s hard for me to see — somebody who was old, a friend, she used come by and say hi to us all the time.”
While Joo is undoubtedly aware of the hardships that come with running a small business on the Upper West Side, he is also clearly aware of all the good things that come from it.
“The good thing is the people that do come in and treat us like family, like friends. They know our names, we know most of theirs. We’re small so we can talk to the customers. Get to know them.
“We saw a lot of kids growing up in here. Coming into our store and growing up. That’s what’s really satisfying. We’re getting a reward. We find out you get into college, or people come in when their kids have kids and say, “I’ve got a grandson!”