Joanne Kwong, President, Pearl River Mart
On Pearl River's staying power, building community, and adapting to modern consumer tastes.
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Pearl River Mart is a New York institution carrying a wide-ranging selection of Asian gifts, fashion, ceramics, snacks, and a whole host of other things. Founded in 1971 during a time of strained relations between China and the United States, Pearl River was as much a source of familiar goods as it was a home for political activism.
Today, it is known to New Yorkers as a place where you can find just about anything. I tend to go for fancy bows and Asian ingredients, and they also host performances, tastings, classes, and sell curated collections from Asian American designers.
I chatted with Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart (as well as the daughter-in-law of the founders) about the store’s staying power, building community, and adapting to modern consumer tastes.
Brianna Plaza: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your background and the history of the store?
Joanne Kwong: I am the daughter-in-law of the original founders, and I grew up in Astoria, Queens. Like any Chinese kid who grew up in the Tri-state area, I would go to Chinatown on the weekend because that's just what you did. Your family went there to shop for food, and you got your eyeglasses there, your jeans and sneakers, and grandma played Mahjong at the Family Association.
I ended up going to college and then graduate school, and I left the city for three years. So coming back to the store as an adult was really a homecoming and really just brought back a lot of nostalgia. Pearl River is this lovely, colorful place that had affordable goods. It is this place that has so many different functions and memories for a lot of New Yorkers.
The store has gone through massive rent increases, so we’ve tried to help them as second-generation kids. We found consultants and I think they took one meeting and they were like, "Nah.” They'd rather close. They always felt like their mission was to be this bridge between New York and Chinese culture. And they felt like after 45-46 years they've done that. So rather than see it turned into something not faithful to the original mission, they would rather just close and retire.
I wish they had told us kids that in the beginning, but I think they also never wanted to pressure their kids. I was a lawyer, and then I worked in non-profit up at Columbia, so it was not in my wheelhouse. But I am a very community minded person, and it always feels like people don't step up to save these pillars of their own communities. All of these really lovely legacy institutions will die because they're really hard to run. In many ways, I still don't know whether the economics make sense. The store occupies this space that's still really very important, I think, for certain communities. I did feel like Pearl River still had their original mission from 1971 was still so needed in the city, even in 2016, which is when I started.
Brianna Plaza: The store has moved a lot in its history, and most establishments don't survive even one move. Why do you think there's been such a staying power for Pearl River in New York?
Joanne Kwong: I appreciate that somebody recognizes that it's literally like a three block radius around Chinatown-Tribeca-Soho.
I attribute a lot of the staying power directly to my in-laws. They're made of steel. It seems like the store’s moved around a lot, but it’s more a cycle of them getting a 10 to 15 year lease and being a good tenant. Then they really helped to build up the area. And then others would move in and the landlord would want to raise the rent quite a lot. Now that I've been through a few of these rebuilds, it's so heartbreaking because you just remember all this work that you put in, and there's just nothing you can do about it. And the fact that the Chens have done this so many times is astonishing.
This is not tooting my own horn, but they would not have done it again without me coming along in 2016. They were like, "We're done, right?" But when we had to move again during the pandemic, I was in a ball in the corner and they were like, "No problem. We'll just move." And they still had that very steely disposition because their mission was renewed, and they had seen the beginnings of this new generation. We have a great team now and multiple stores, which I don’t think they ever dreamed of. That was really something that the next generation brought to the table for them because they were shopkeepers for 46 years. I look at my role in the long history of the business as a little bit different than just a shopkeeper.
Brianna Plaza: Why did opening a food-specific store seem like a logical next step?
Joanne Kwong: It’s really inspiring to be in Chelsea market. A lot of mom and pops shops are here, and they’re great owner-operators. The opportunity came to us to build a grocery store, and I didn't know how to do that. But we did know how to bring people together as community members. We were already working with many Asian-American entrepreneurs, and there were a lot of new brands and operators in the space. A lot of them had products we wanted to highlight, but it was hard because in the original store, we’d have food right next to wedding dresses.
I basically thought that if you were already in Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s you’d already made it. But that’s not necessarily true because you have to pay to get on the shelves and it's very difficult to get noticed, and if you don't sell, then you don't stay on the shelves. I never thought about that, and I just thought we could focus people's attention on a few products that are in our wheelhouse.
Pearl River Foods is basically these Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) creators and combo that with a very curated food store that has everything that you would need. We built out the space to sell products and house food vendors. It was an interesting issue because we only have four food stations and how do you whittle down the Asian-American experience to four stations?
We have dumplings, boba, and kimbap, which is almost like a Korean sushi. Our fourth station we took over ourselves just to experiment. So it rotates now. We have our own staff prepare one product with a partner. We rotate twice a year and gives vendors a nice popup and it gives us enough time to learn it and perfect it.
Brianna Plaza: Most of the store focuses on Asian and AAPI goods. How do you adapt to consumer trends and interests?
Joanne Kwong: We have a book in every store, which we encourage people to write in. So if there's anything that we're missing, we want them to write it. So that's helpful for us because there could be things that we're totally missing. We sometimes do get products that people are looking for. Our staff are super knowledgeable and very much foodies, so they actually love to talk to the people who come in. It's maybe quicker to shop with us than to go Chinatown.
For the retail store, I think now that we’ve rebooted and we have a very active social presence, people reach out to us, which is great. So we do get the AAPI stuff, and then getting the secret finds from Asia that are not already on Amazon or easily available is very difficult. It definitely not the same as when the Chens first opened the store. Mr. Chen had to smuggle goods back to the US. I try to go to Asia once a year with my family, and we try to go to a different country each time and just look around.
We also try to service communities that are not serviced well. We showcased an artist from Laos, and I was like, “Where do you shop for Lao products?" And they were like, "There isn’t one so we go to a Thai or a Southeast Asian grocer." So I realized I needed to get more Lao products in here. We still don't have that many, but I think we're always paying attention to those communities that don't have easy access to food.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me a bit more about the art gallery and why it seemed like a natural fit for the Soho store.
Joanne Kwong: The Art Gallery was a really wonderful coincidence. When we were building out the current location, the builder used this scaffolding that created a weird mezzanine space that had no windows. It over looked the sales floor and it reminded me of the Tea Mezzanine that we had in the original Soho location. We opened it as a tea mezzanine, but it didn't do well. So I thought, "Oh, why don't we put some art shows in?"
The original plan was to open then renovate, so it gave me a few months to put a couple of art shows in the space. With the first couple of shows, people really loved it. We had this space and the artist love it. They were able to invite all their friends, and because we were open all the time, seven days a week, it's like the perfect place to get your work seen. We’ve shown work from legendary photographer, Corky Lee, and he really set the stage for the gallery and really turned it into a legit place.
30 shows later, it is a legitimate gallery, and it's still a very small, humble place, but the artists do love the space. They feel like it's very cozy and it's perfect for solo shows. So we've done many, many artists first show or first solo show. And that's really meaningful to them. And our community comes out because they're super stoked to see three or four new shows a year.
Brianna Plaza: You talked a little bit about diversifying revenue with the opening of smaller outposts. What does growth look like?
Joanne Kwong: We have the Soho flagship and then the two Chelsea stores. And then last November we experimented with a pop-up in Flushing, Queens at the Tangram Mall. We’ve always been curious whether we should be opening in the outer boroughs close to home or whether we should be going out to different cities. I guess there are different schools of thought about what that adds to your business. But I don't know, now that I've done this a while, it's hard operationally to transplant to a different city.
I’ve talked to restaurant owners and they’re like, at least for restaurants, there are plenty of people to go around in the Tri-State area. So they’re like, "Oh, we have several locations in the Tri-State area." I don't know if that works for us because we're a retail store. I think especially post pandemic, when leases are quite long, like 12, 15 years, you really have to think about whether you want to open multiple locations.
And I think for us, we're not a huge conglomerate that's just opening stores. For us, we would be traveling there and be very hands-on. I think our format now, which is about 3,500-4,000 square feet maybe with a food component, is an amazing store. It actually would work really well in other cities. We get a lot of visitors, they're like, "Please open up in our city." Strangely, we get a lot of Italians that ask us to open in Italy. We're like, "Really?"
Brianna Plaza: Maybe they want the reverse of Eataly.
Joanne Kwong: Oh.
Brianna Plaza: Since that's like their "export". But do Italians sit down and think about other non-Italian foods they want to eat? I don’t know. I mean, it sounds like I'm wrong, and they do want that.
Joanne Kwong: I think we could clean up. I got to look into that.
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