Abandoned for over seven years, the brick building along Jackson Street on St. Paul’s East Side appeared ready for the wrecking ball.
But to Boua Chao Yang, the building was perfect for what he envisioned as a central location for the bustling numbers of Hmong owned businesses that were seemingly popping up everywhere at that time.
From real estate brokers to temp agencies, the Hmong community was filled with bright-eyed entrepreneurs who had taken the big plunge into the world of self-employment and independence.
Emboldened by the upswing in the economy, Yang sold his successful day-care business and invested his life-savings to purchase and rehab the 25,600sq ft building that would become the Vinai Office Park, branded as being the first Hmong-owned office building in Minnesota.
And like those eager, young business people he would soon be housing, Yang was very optimistic about the future.
“There was a list of businesses just waiting to get space in the building,” recalls Yang of the ceremonial 2003 opening of Vinai. “We had 100% occupancy those first few years.”
One-by-one, however, a revolving door of businesses came and went. The turnover rate of tenants eventually became an issue when calls to fill empty spaces began to dry up for Vinai.
At first Yang made a big deal about the leases that business owners signed, threatening to make a legal hassle for those who vacated their offices before their lease ended. Eventually, Yang found out the troubles weren’t worth the effort.
With a chuckle, Yang sprinkled humor with his frustrations by recalling stories he had accumulated as the landlord of Vinai.
“We had people going out of business before they even moved in,” Yang amused. “Now when people want to move in, I’m happy to just collect the first and last month of rent.”
When asked to comment about the future of Vinai and of the state of Hmong businesses in general, Yang outstretches his arms as he shrugs his shoulders. With one short breath Yang utters, “The dream is over.”
Yang is not alone in his assessment of the Hmong business world.
Speaking with the assurance that her name and her store’s name be withheld as not to offend her customers, Mr. and Mrs. Lee [not their real surname] has been in the grocery business for nearly 10 years. With the belief that there are enough Hmong in the Twin Cities to support Hmong businesses, Lee and her husband recently took out a large loan to install a kitchen in their store.
“We thought our customers would appreciate our efforts to improve,” Mrs. Lee explained with some sarcasm in her voice. “But you drive along University Avenue and you can see people lined outside the door at the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. We are lucky when a family walks in by mistake and eats a bowl of pho here because we begged them to.”
Mrs. Lee doesn’t blame any ethnic groups for the lack of support from her own community, but she eagerly points out that if you walk into any of the Vietnamese pho restaurants on University Ave., “You could count the tables and see that more than half the tables are Hmong.”
With a pause and some expletives in the Hmong language, Mrs. Lee points to the empty dining area in her store and calmly explains that in the ten years since they have been in business, “Not one Vietnamese person has walked into this store.”
Mr. Lee, on the other hand, studies how different ethnic groups run their businesses and learns how to improve their own store and how to also become a smarter consumer.
“The Hmong people never do business before we come to America,” Mr. Lee illuminates. “But we can all learn from our neighbors how to support each other. That is the only way our own community can grow. We Hmong are still learning.”
Struggling to keep up with the bills on a month-to-month basis, the Lees are hesitant to hire outside help for their store. Like many Hmong owned businesses, the entire family partakes in the operation of the store.
In addition to overseeing the operations at their store, Mr. Lee continues to hold the same third-shift machine operator position he has had for the last 15 years.
“The entire family has to work at the store to keep the store alive,” Mr. Lee concludes. “But I need to work a second job to keep the family alive.”
The Flea Markets: Boon or Bust for the Hmong Economy?
It is a retail phenomena that has swept the Hmong community. The success of the flea markets can be seen each weekend as the parking lots swell to capacity with hundreds of shoppers pouring into these markets.
Similar to the shopping experience that mainstream malls bring, the concept behind the flea markets is to have a number of small retailers who rent space in one central location.
Shoppers have the convenience of being able to visit multiple shops in the market as opposed to having to drive around town from one store to the next.
Furthering the success of flea markets is the relative low cost of starting a business at the flea market which has helped the aspiring entrepreneur to achieve that elusive dream of becoming a business owner.
Take Ker Vue, for example. She has always wanted to share her talent in the kitchen, so when the Golden Globe International Mall opened up in St. Paul, the 54-year-old mother from Appleton, WI quit her job of 20 years and sacrificed her life-savings to reserve a kitchen spot within the new flea market.
Along with her 24-year-old son, Ying Vue, the new restaurant owner now lives with relatives in St. Paul while they work on establishing their business, Vue Broil and Grille.
Despite having to work more than 12 hours a day, the Vues are optimistic about the future.
“Every day is a new learning experience,” Ying Vue remarked on their venture. “This is my college.”
While it is still too early to judge the long-term success of the flea markets, the quick rise in its popularity is a matter of great concern for those who operate the traditional mom and pops out in the neighborhoods. Some store owners have gone as far as to blame the emergence of the flea markets for the demise of their traditional neighborhood stores.
“We have to pay increasingly high rent, utilities and taxes to keep our stores running,” explained Mr. Lee. “Which means we need to raise our prices for our products just to keep up. Guess where the shoppers end up going.”
Not all business owners are as critical of the flea markets. As the owner of one of the first Hmong-owned stores on University Avenue, Long Her of New Fashion has seen his share of business trends.
Conceding that the flea markets have taken a good share of his customers, Her is a believer in the free market system that allows for competition in the business world.
“When we see our customers going somewhere else, it forces us to become better,” Her explains. “At the end of the day of shopping at the flea markets, customers still come in our store to buy their clothes because they know we have the selection they are looking for.”
With the largest selection of “Extra Small” sized clothing in the Twin Cities, Her attributes his long-term success to having been able to carve a niche within the Hmong community.
“That’s going to be difficult for the owner of a small booth at the flea market to do,” Her concludes.
Lessons learned from successful businesses
When asked on what he hopes to accomplish as the newly hired executive director for the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce, Foung Heu lists as one of his priorities the need to bridge Hmong businesses with the mainstream community.
“Moving in the future, I believe it will be the ability to attract non-Hmong customers as a key to our success,” Heu asserts. “We need to improve our image and our service to go beyond our Hmong customer base.”
This approach has indeed reaped great rewards for a number of successful Hmong owned businesses in the Twin Cities.
J. Kou Vang, owner of JB Realty, a commercial real estate company based in St. Paul, defers to his experienced staff—most of whom are non-Hmong, when it comes to marketing and closing deals.
With very few clients who are Hmong, Vang understands the value in having the services of experienced employees, especially in dealing with highly technical aspects of real estate.
“I can only bring so much to the table,” Vang revealed during a previous interview. “But when a potential client sees that I have an experienced staff, it makes them feel more comfortable to work with our company.”
Based in the posh Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis, Sushi Tango is packed most nights of the week. The strategic location where wealthy urbanites like to hang-out is the key to Sushi Tango’s success, says co-owner Teng Thao.
“Location, location, location. And then the rest is working your butt off to make sure each and every dish you make is 100% perfect.”
As a restaurant owner, Thao works nearly 14 hours a day to keep Sushi Tango operating. This level of commitment and passion, he says, is the piece of advice he would give to anybody who wants to start their own business.
“No matter what you do, you need to have a genuine passion for it in order for it to be successful. I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant and I still love it.”
With a recent expansion into the suburban settings of Woodbury, Sushi Tango’s success may hinge around its ability to bring in a mainstream clientele, but the owners have never forgotten their roots as Hmong kids who grew up in the projects in St. Paul.
Being able to employ a good number of Hmong sushi chefs and kitchen staff since Sushi Tango opened six years ago has been a matter of great pride for Thao who acts as both employer and big brother.
“When you can give a meaningful job to some kid who is just hanging around, that gives me a great feeling inside,” said Thao
If success can be measured by the number of employees a business can support, then Golden Harvest on St. Paul’s East Side is a stellar example of success.
The largest Hmong-owned store in Minnesota, Golden Harvest continues to grow by tapping into an unlikely source, both for employees and customers: The youth generation.
“We projected that younger families would eventually become a significant portion of our customer base,” explained Shua Xiong, owner and general manager. “And so we began to diversify our products in the store to reflect the changes in buying habits of the evolving Hmong community.”
Not only did this strategy work for Golden Harvest, but it worked out better—and much sooner than anticipated.
Although being able to change with the times is important for the growth of a company, Xiong insists that the real secret to success is to not lose focus on what one does best.
“We may try new things or tweak how we do other things, but we never stray too far away from what we know best, which is to provide quality products with quality service.”