Koreans Travel Long Distances For Their Kimchi

Markets in Santa Clara County serve as an area magnet for native Koreans desiring their unique cuisine.


By Eileen Eustaquio

For many Korean American families, keeping culture and tradition alive may mean driving on a regular basis to Santa Clara County. Numerous stores in our area cater to the Korean American community, offering them the necessary ingredients they need to cook traditional dishes.

“We get customers (from) as far as Fairfield, Pleasanton, and the Concord areas. Even as far south as Monterey,” said Steve Kim, the owner of Super Kyo Po Plaza in Santa Clara, one of the largest Korean supermarkets in the Bay Area.

He said approximately 1,000 customers come through his doors each day. “They make it a day where they eat out at a restaurant then do other things here, and also do their shopping.”

Kim explained that many Korean seasonings, noodles, and produce typically aren’t available in general American or Asian grocery stores. But Korean supermarkets are plentiful in Santa Clara.

And, according to Kim, grocery stores in the South Bay typically have a better prices, better selection, and sales for customers due to the competition and buying power among all the stores.

Although Kim says he believes that many customers find that it is an inconvenience to drive such distances for traditional food, it is not financially feasible for storeowners to open a Korean market in other areas. “The community is not there [in Monterey] to support a 20,000 square foot store,” Kim said.

The desire for this traditional food brings many Korean seniors to Super Kyo Po Plaza, as well as to other Korean grocery stores in the area. Kim sees many of his senior customers coming to his market with relatives via car. Kim also notes that a bus comes by a couple times a month carrying Korean American seniors from a nearby senior living complex.

“Korean food is one of those foods that, if you grew up on it, you have to keep eating it because of the spices and the flavor. Kimchi is one of those foods that, if you don’t eat it for one day, you miss it,” said Kim.

“We have a pretty loyal following of seniors because we have the traditional Korean vegetables, which are predominately made into kimchi. The seniors have a tendency to eat more Korean food than the 1.5th generation or the second generation.”

Loyalty is so strong that without nearby Korean markets, many seniors become malnourished.

Another Korean leader also named Steve Kim is a board member at the Korean American Community Services Agency. He said that seniors prefer sticking to foods known to them. When these seniors come to a situation in which they cannot access or afford Korean food, they stick to the bare minimum staples: rice and the customary dish, kimchi.

Kimchi is made of vegetables and is widely regarded as a healthy dish containing many vitamins. But those whose diets are solely made up of only these two dishes are malnourished, as they aren’t eating a full diet that contains protein, fruit, or dairy.

For many seniors, the only viable solution right now is through the Korean American Community Services (KACS) agency in San Jose. Every day, KACS offers a nutritious, dietician-approved traditional meal for seniors. They also offer a limited transportation service that brings seniors from their homes to the KACS building to take advantage of such services.

Super Kyo Po Plaza’s Kim had thought of conducting a delivery service, but it was financially and geographically irrational for his business. Aside from Santa Clara County, the Korean community is not concentrated enough in a particular area to warrant such a delivery service.

“For an American grocery store, they focus on customers that are in a 5 mile radius. That’s their target market. For us, a Korean store, our customers are spread out about 30, 40 miles. To try to do a deliver service just financially doesn’t make sense,” explained Kim.

Kim is looking into opening up another grocery store in the Pleasanton/Dublin area so that the Korean households living there don’t have to make the long drive. Since Walnut Creek and Concord are also close to this area, the population living in those towns would also benefit from such a store opening.

This project is still in the works. Due to the recession, customers aren’t buying as much. “Considering the way the economy is right now, there is too much uncertainty,” said Kim. “But it would be something to look at in the next couple of years.”

Eileen Eustaquio is a junior at Santa Clara University majoring in Public Health Science. Anna Prestbo, an SCU sophomore, helped edit this article.

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