by Howard Campbell
BRONX, NY – For most of the 25 years her family’s grocery store has been in business, Joanne Chung says their biggest clientele has been Jamaican. A whopping 85 per cent of customers who walk through their doors are from the Caribbean country.
Chung, whose family is originally from South Korea, is a manager at SY Grace Supermarket in The Bronx which services the community’s large Jamaican and West Indian communities. Its shelves are stocked with hard-to-find or popular goods from Jamaica — yams and calaloo to peppered shrimp and Betty condensed milk.
“We have people coming from Connecticut, Philadelphia, one person comes in from North Carolina to stock up, and people from The Bahamas. Whatever our customers need, I go to Jamaica and buy it,” Chung explained.
The youngest of three children, Chung learned the business from Danny, her brother. His attentiveness to the customer’s needs prompted her to travel to Jamaica twice a year to purchase items Jamaicans in New York City long for, including Gold Seal Margarine and Anchor syrup.
“When I go to Jamaica, I go to the supermarkets in Kingston and don’t just look at what’s in them. I want our store to be as similar, or as close, to the supermarkets down there,” she said.
Her father, S E Young, is from Daejeon in South Korea. He first came to the United States in the 1980s and started a fish market in The Bronx 30 years ago. That venture evolved into an expansive grocery at Boston Road in The Bronx, heart of the borough’s West Indian community.
“My Dad learned from the customers. They wanted fish but they also asked for thyme, ackees, hot pepper sauce; things they got back home but found hard to get here,” she said.
The Bronx and neighboring boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have been home to thousands of West Indians since the 1960s, the majority of them from Jamaica. Many of them set up countless small businesses in areas like White Plains Road, Jamaica and Flatbush Avenue.
As a gesture of appreciation to their Jamaican customers, the Chung family began paying one-year tuition for a student at the University of the West Indies (Mona) in Kingston last year.