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."
Park studies race relations in Los Angeles, and she's writing a book about the racial strife that led to the 1992 L.A. riots and how the aftermath affected the Korean, African American and Latino communities. That era saw the 1991 shooting of black teenager Latasha Harlins by Korean-born grocer Soon Ja Du and the subsequent sentencing of Du to probation, community service and a fine. A year later, riots followed the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King, and hundreds of Korean-owned businesses in South-Central and Koreatown were torched, looted and destroyed.
"One of the very painful lessons that the Korean American community learned since then was that they would have to do their best to improve their relationships with the people they were doing business with," Park says. Now groups such as the Korean American Grocers Assn. award $1,000 college scholarships to students of all ethnicities, donate backpacks to low-income students and sponsor high school sports teams in Carson, Banning and Gardena.
There's no basis in fact for the stereotype of Korean Americans not embracing the community once they feel safe and understand cultural differences, Park says. "For Korean immigrants, owning a small business is part of the American dream."
Seven months have passed since the grand-opening party at Echo Food Market, one of several stores that dot the mostly residential stretch of Echo Park Avenue about a mile north of Sunset Boulevard. "Echo Food," in green letters, is a super-size graphic against a bright yellow wall over an orange awning.
Inside, the store is spotless, with new lighting, display shelves and tables. By the door is a wine rack, next to a table with discount underwear and socks. Hanging from the ceiling are beer signs in colorful neon, and FBI, POLICE, FDLA, CIA and TROJAN baseball caps. The floor is orange-painted cement.
Until recently, graffiti scarred the exterior walls. The Lees had placed a bench outside the store, but Jaycy had to drag it inside because it too was defaced. Jaycy says he has contacted the city department in charge of graffiti cleanup. This won't be the first time they've come out; taggers have marked the store before.
"The previous owner really had a bad relationship with the gangsters here," Thomas says. "They didn't allow him to run his business. So when we came in we didn't know what to expect. But we met the ringleader of the gang, and now we're on friendly terms and they're helping to protect the store."
Thomas and Jaycy are aware of Korean American small-business associations that give advice to merchants on how to get along with customers, but they've figured it out for themselves. "My main motive is to be friendly with everyone who comes in," Thomas says. "It's not just good merchandise, it's more about being honest and sincere and reaching out." They've donated drinking water to the elementary school down the street. They've welcomed customers with free plastic salad bowls and, even before the grand opening, gave out ceramic figurines of puppies and children for the holidays. Thomas and Jaycy pay particular attention to those who buy party supplies. Someone celebrating a birthday might just walk out with a free bottle of champagne.
"Not wine, champagne!" says Thomas, speaking for the first time in English.
Reyna Aguilar lives 2 1/2 blocks from the store. Her 11-year-old son, Carlos, and his friend rode their bikes to Echo Food Market to buy bottled water, but the friend was short on change. "The man said, that's OK, come back, I trust you," Aguilar says. "I thought that was pretty nice. They went back and paid him."
"When you go in there, customer service is a priority above everything," says Amano, the DJ. "They're thanking you for coming in the door, they're thanking you when you're leaving."
Amano says he's gotten to know Jaycy. "I spend money, talk some politics, ask questions about his culture. We're going to bridge the gap. That's what we're supposed to do."