Koreana Plaza capitalizes on Sacramento’s diversity

At Rancho Cordova’s Koreana Plaza, all the world is Byong Joo Yu’s stage. About 3,000 customers go through the checkout lines each day in his 80,000-square-foot supermarket to buy, sample or just marvel at 50,000 foods and products from 100 countries.

The impresario of what he calls “The United Nations of Food,” Korean immigrant “B.J.” Yu has transformed what was a dying shopping center on Olson Drive into a capitalist monument to Sacramento’s storied diversity. His food court alone offers Mexican, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, Vietnamese, northern and southern Chinese cuisine, with Filipino and Persian counters to come.

“It’s not just a shopping center, it’s a shopping experience and a destination,” said Curt Haven, director of economic development and neighborhood services for Rancho Cordova.

“Winter Wonderland” and other Christmas carols flooded the aisles this month as customers picked up alligator feet ($6.99 a pound) from Florida, Russian bitter pepper liquor, live frogs, turtles, sturgeon and lobsters, fresh tortillas hot off the tortilla machine, concentrated black Korean ginseng ($205 a jar), duck and quail eggs, fresh German bread, piroshki, cabbage rolls and pastries. Last-minute shoppers will find the doors open today, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., if they want to find gifts in the rows of kimchi, spices, seaweed, vodkas in rifle-shaped bottles, beers, sake, soju, teas, coffees, cheeses, rice and honey from 10 different nations. Need a panettone, the classic Italian Christmas cake? There’s one from Italy or another from Peru.

Yu, 55, challenges any customer to name a food product he doesn’t carry – if they want it, he’ll find it. Looking for Mama Sita’s mango syrup from the Philippines? The computer in the customer service center directs you to aisle 3B, section 12, level 15. “The Persian community came to me last August and said, ‘We do shop here, but you are short of some brands, and we really like sangak – long bread.’ ” Yu recalled. “They sent me to see a Persian market in Garden Grove where people were lined up for the bread. So next year I’m putting in a 7-by-9 foot sangak machine.”

Yu’s work pace is punishing, his taut body always in motion. From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, he races through the store – the size of more than 1 1/2 football fields – row by row to check what’s selling, how it’s priced and who’s buying.

On his rounds one day earlier this month, Yu picked up a package of Korean mini pancakes for $2.49 and told a clerk, “Too cheap!”

He bumped into Mandy Nguyen, who was taking a shopping cart to open the Vietnamese counter at the food court. He told her the Japanese ocean salt she had picked out – $6.99 a bag – was too expensive. “I’ll give you Korean salt, $1.49,” he said. “And you don’t need Persian rock candy for soup, you need to use Chinese rock candy. At 1 p.m., I’ll get you some brisket.” Yu’s parting words: “Make food not like restaurant food, but food you make for your son’s graduation.”

At the fish counter, which sells up to 1,000 pounds of fresh fish daily, he told one of his fish mongers, “Only one carp? I have to have more! The Russians love carp ... Asians love mackerel, Indians catfish and pompano, Filipinos tilapia, milkfish, live crabs ... frogs are selling well.”

Rohan Morgan, a tractor-trailer driver from Jamaica, said he’s been coming here for five years to buy parrotfish, sugar cane and tamarind balls. “It’s island food,” Morgan said contentedly. “Ya mon.”

It’s not just the food or the customers that are international. Yu’s 146 employees – all of whom he interviewed personally – include Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Hmong, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Mexicans, Nigerians and Indians.

Multiculturalism is Yu’s secret ingredient, along with his high-octane work ethic and the ability to reinvent himself in the face of the numerous challenges he has faced since landing in Oakland at age 19 with a family that spoke no English and had no money.

Friday through Sunday, Yu offers free tastings so customers can have a “food cultural exchange.”

“Diversity!” Yu declared. “When I opened this 10 years ago we made this an Asian store for Koreans and Chinese, but I found out we didn’t have enough customers for that food only.” He discovered that a third of Rancho Cordova’s nearly 67,000 residents were from eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. “The first thing the Russians want is smoked fish, so I got smoked salmon and whitefish,” Yu said. “Then I found out they’re crazy about smoking – meat, chicken, pork – so I bought a smoker.”

Then, Yu said, “we found out Ukrainians, Moldovans, Iranians, Iraqis and Indians want their own food, too, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ ” When Rancho Cordova’s Latino population reached 20 percent, Yu put in the tortilla machine and rows of Mexican sauces, cheeses, spices and produce such as nopalitos (prickly pears), cactus, mangos and gigantic Mexican papaya. Fresh produce is what Koreana is famous for. Of course, you find potatoes, a Slavic staple, but also jackfruit, taro leaf, durian, Korean pears and dragon fruit.

The ‘perfect place’

Myron Mill, a retired chef from Carson City who’s now a casino dealer, comes here every few months for ingredients for his French and Asian dishes. He filled his cart on a recent visit with gailon (Chinese broccoli), mustard greens, buckwheat soba noodles, marble halva, sesame oil and oolong and Akbar teas. “I’m Ukrainian and Polish,” said Mill, 62.

One row over, Thu Vo, a Vietnamese immigrant from Rancho Cordova, has popped in for noodle soup and vegetables. “It’s my dinner,” she said.

Yu is looking to expand his multi-ethnic hub. He recently opened the food court. Next month he plans to open a 14-room karaoke bar next door, where after a few shots of soju he might sing his favorite John Denver song, “My Sweet Lady.”

Next year, he said, he plans to add a cafe with outdoor seating and a restaurant with full menus from 10 to 15 nations “with a menu like a dictionary.” And in 2015, he said, he will turn the empty building next to Kohl’s – once part of Mervyn’s – into a 20,000-square-foot Korean day spa “with a dry sauna, wet sauna, jade sauna, whirlpool, massage, nails, hair, cleanses and herbal wraps.”

Yu’s vision has transformed the Zinfandel Square, built about 25 years ago. By the time he arrived in December 2003, the store, once an Albertson, “was actually vacant for years, it was a blight in our community,” Haven said. “B.J. got the insight to create this international market and has reinvented the shopping center.”

Koreana Plaza sits next to the Cordova light-rail station just off Highway 50. Zinfandel Square has an enormous parking lot, and when Albertsons left and Mervyns folded, Yu bought both parcels for $11 million, not including Kohl’s, and brought the center back to life, said Rancho Cordova Mayor Linda Budge.

“Rancho was the perfect place for Koreana Plaza because 67 percent of the Korean American businesses in the county are located between Watt Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, and the city has hosted waves of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union,” Budge said. “We have 84 languages spoken in our local schools.”

The seeds of the Koreana complex were planted in Oakland, where Yu opened his first Koreana market in 1997. By that time, he’d gained entrepreneurial experience as a shoe repairman, flea market vendor and wholesaler.

Over a working breakfast of huevos rancheros with his top managers earlier this month, Yu said his journey began in Seoul, South Korea, where his mother and father ran a small family restaurant. Yu said he was forced to study a minimum of 60 to 80 hours a week, as were most of his peers. “They don’t let you go any place,” he said. “In Korea you’ve got to keep on studying to get into college.”

When he was a junior in high school, Yu said, his parents told him the family was moving to Oakland to live with Yu’s oldest sister. “I didn’t want to come – all my friends were in Seoul –but the family was broke. What are you going to do?” he recalled. Yu got on board when his parents said he now only had to concentrate on three subjects: Korean, English and math.

Yu’s oldest sister had married a Korean immigrant who worked at a Safeway in Oakland. When Yu, his parents and two middle sisters arrived in October 1977, they moved into his oldest sister’s two-bedroom apartment. Because Yu was the only one of the newcomers who spoke English, “all of a sudden I became the household provider.”

He worked from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at his sister’s Pusan Market. “After two months she paid me $15, when minimum wage was $2.25 an hour,” Yu said.

When he quit, his sister got him a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant. “I was told the health inspector was coming the next day and ordered to clean out a giant soup pot,” he said. “It was so big a person can jump into it, and it hadn’t been cleaned in six months. It took me all day. I couldn’t stand the smell of crusted, rotting food.”

He quit to work in an Italian seafood restaurant in Lafayette and was forced to live in the Korean owner’s house because he had no transportation. “When we got home at 11 p.m. from the restaurant he ordered me to clean up his house. I said, ‘I’m not your slave,’ and quit after a week.”

Yu’s fourth job was working the graveyard shift at a San Leandro 7-Eleven. “I biked there from Oakland and brought tea and rice from home to save money,” he said. “I had to fight a lot of guys who come in and steal beers.”

He contemplated going to school but realized that no matter how hard he studied, “I can never be No. 1, so I said, ‘Forget it, I’m going to make money.’ ”

‘I trust you’

In 1978, he borrowed $1,800 from his brother-in-law and bought a shoe repair shop from a 92-year-old Italian immigrant for $800. “Touching shoes is the worst job in Korea, but he taught me how to fix shoes in three days,” Yu said. He said he made $100 a month fixing shoes during the day, while he still worked the 7-Eleven graveyard shift.

By polishing and touching up shoes to look new, his shoe repair business grew to four employees. On Sunday, his one day off, Yu worked the Sunday swap meet circuit selling sunglasses and roller skates in Oakland, San Jose, Turlock, Salinas and Modesto. He moved up to frying pans, toys and luggage, had four stations, drove a BMW and was making $10,000 a month at age 25. “When you’re young and making a lot of money, the most dangerous thing is you think you’re smart,” said Yu. He became a wholesaler and then, he said, lost everything when his distributors stiffed him for $80,000.

“I had cash flow problems, girlfriend problems, my so-called friends disappeared and I went all the way down,” Yu said. For several months, he said he stayed home, drank vodka and watched Chinese kung fu movies. “I was very depressed, but Chi Hyun, who became my wife, stuck with me. She has a good heart.” Yu said he turned things around after his mother held his hand and said, “I trust you, B.J.”

“I told her, ‘I can’t betray your trust,’ ” he said, and returned to the flea market with a new product – slightly used and irregular tennis shoes that had been returned to Macy’s and other stores. He paid $8 a pair. Yu touched them up with spray paint, matched them up and made a sign that said, “Reebok Shoes – Macy’s price $60-70, my price $20.” Yu said he was soon making $500 a day.

He bought Pusan Market in Chinatown from his sister, then moved it to Telegraph Avenue as Koreana Plaza. “In 1990, I went to seven days a week,” he said. “I strongly advise people not to do that. You will almost kill your spirit. You’re open until 9 p.m., clean up until 11, get some Chinese takeout then have to be at the produce market by 5 a.m. or all the fresh stuff is gone. I did that for seven years, never went to the movies.”

When the Bay Area housing market soared in the early 2000s, many Koreans moved to Rancho Cordova to buy cheaper homes and businesses, said Yu. He opened Koreana Plaza here in 2003. The first year, he said, he lost more than $1 million, then expanded his clientele to the Slavic community. In 2011, he got a $21.3 million SBA loan to expand his market, which will gross about $22 million this year. “This year I’ll break even – next year I’m going to start making money,” said Yu.

“If something’s not selling, I try to figure out why instead of just taking it off the shelf, or I mark the price down,” he said. “If you just give up, you’ll never make it in an international market.”

“B.J.’s definitely a genius,” said David Ponomar, a local Russian media mogul who attended Yu’s 10th anniversary open house Dec. 18. “The produce is fresh, the service is nice and the prices really good – we buy shrimp all the time. My wife wanted to make miso soup, and one of B.J.’s employees gave us a recipe and helped us find the ingredients. There’s only one Russian store that competes with him.”

These days, Yu doesn’t have to do all the work himself. He has managers to help him. But that doesn’t stop him from putting in 14 hours a day at the Rancho Cordova store. His wife and two kids still live in Oakland. Yu typically gets into his black Porsche Carrera around 11 p.m. and heads to the house in Gold River where he bunks with four of his managers.

“I’ll take home a bottle of Gangnam soju, some rice and Russian smoked pork ribs,” he said. “You eat that with kimchi, oh my God! I’m good to go!”

some rice