Korean family counts on teamwork in Philly marketplace. From portable stand to booming business in seven years
IT'S 7:30 in the evening. It's cold, wet, and dark. Kyu Chang Ro's No. 1 son Charlie is on the phone, jotting down the latest prices of turnips and white asparagus.Skip to next paragraph
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Ro's wife, Young, and two of their daughters are paring and trimming lettuces and cabbages. Other family members are washing vegetables and hosing down the store's cement floor. All are ready to call it a day.
Another son is waiting in the plush new air-conditioned white van, ready to take everyone home.
When Mr. Ro came here from Seoul eight years ago, he had $700 in his pocket, a wife at his side, and five of their six children in tow. With an abiding Christian faith and solid pragmatism, he came in pursuit of the Great American Dream.
``I always wanted to come here ever since I was a boy. To me America was a paradise because it is a Christian country,'' he says, chatting in his tiny milk-white office in back of Philadelphia's bustling Reading Terminal Market.
``I studied the history of this country before I arrived. For the early settlers, it was church first, then school, then house. I liked that,'' he says with a confirming series of nods.
Ro, formerly an officer of high rank in the Korean Army, came here with his sleeves rolled up, ready to work. His first job was as a grinding operator in a local steel mill.
``Someone who had been an officer in the Korean Army could not have done such humble work in Seoul. They would laugh at me. But we wanted a good education for our children, so we came here. I worked in the mill and my wife, Young, worked as a seamstress,'' he explains.
He started the days then, as he does now, up at 3 a.m., spending time in prayer, Bible reading, and singing hymns until 5, then off to work. ``That prepares me for the day so I fear nothing,'' he says.
After a year, Ro was laid off from the mill. Undaunted, he and his wife opened a 4-by-8-foot portable fruit stand on the corner of 19th and JFK Streets.
Fastidious attention was given to freshness and quality. That meant being first at the distribution center early each morning to buy fruits and vegetables and keeping prices competitive. It also meant living modestly, being frugal, and working long hours. Most important, though, was work in a local Korean Presbyterian church, where Ro is a deacon and his wife an elder.
A year later Ro opened a modest 16-by-16-foot produce stand in Philadelphia's cavernous Reading Terminal Market. With his wife and family, including a sixth child who came to the US after his stint in the Korean Army, Ro's business has grown like kudzu.
According to David O'Neil, general manager of the market, Ro's business now grosses in the neighborhood of $1 million annually.
``Ro is not only industrious,'' says O'Neil, ``he has a knack of listening to people and getting what they want. As Ro says, `My best teacher is my customer.' And he displays his products well. It's the `pile it high, watch it fly' approach. He is without question the most successful produce dealer in Philadelphia.''
As each of the children finished college, they joined the company. With sons and daughters-in-law, there are now 12 in the family working with Ro.
Two other daughters have opened retail stands in local supermarkets, and the sons help with distribution, paperwork, and transportation.
Korean food is relatively new in the United States. Most Americans know sushi from egg foo yong, but not much about other Asian foods. A common comment with many people is, ``All I know about Korean food is kimchi [pickled vegetable], and I heard about that on M*A*S*H.''
Korean food, Ro explains, is primarily simple, usually vegetarian fare. ``Every meal consists mainly of boiled rice, kimchi, and clear soup. Sometimes a little meat or fish, and always some highly spiced vegetable dishes.
``New Year's Day (Ro observes the traditional Jan. 1 date rather than the Chinese new year) and Chusok (the Korean thanksgiving) are the special holidays. Then we dress in our han-bok [elaborate multicolored costumes of silk] and pay special tribute to our elder family members. And there is much royal food.''
Royal or court food, Ro continues, consists of more fancy dishes, usually combining beef and an expensive fish like shrimp.