EAST HANOVER —The smell of barbecue and pan-fried buns radiates throughout the food court at Kam Man Food Market.
It’s Saturday morning at the Chinese supermarket in Morris County. Chef Tony Huang and his staff are busily serving up roast pork buns, ducks, congee and other delicacies. A multiracial line of customers waits for the fresh, hot treats coming out of the kitchen.
“It’s first-come, first-serve,” said Kam Man President Bill Woo. Delicious baked goods like egg tarts and pineapple buns are usually sold out by late afternoon, Woo said. If there are any leftovers, they’re given to the staff at day’s end – never resold the following day.
“In business, your reputation is most important and that reputation is accumulated through years and years of positive interactions with your customers,” said Woo, the trim, second-generation owner who’s also a councilman in Englewood Cliffs.
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An Ivy League graduate who decided to return to the family business, Woo bought Kam Man’s East Hanover location in 2015 from his uncle. Now 44, he’s applying skills learned in international business to move trends in an ethnic foods industry that’s growing fast as America evolves.
Woo grew up in the family business that his father Wanchi and his uncle Wellman founded in Manhattan’s Chinatown in 1972. Their first store was named Kam Kuo, which means “golden country” in Chinese.
Kam Kuo was the first one-stop, large-scale Asian supermarket on the East Coast, before ethnic foods became hip, Woo said. It expanded into New Jersey with Kam Man (“golden gate”) in Edison in 1995, which remains under family ownership. The East Hanover Kam Man opened four years later. Another relative owns a location in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Part supermarket, part gift-shop, bakery and food court, the East Hanover store offers a smorgasbord of Asian goods. There’s a wide selection of food products from sauces to teas. A separate section offers fresh seafood, meats and specialty produce. Asian housewares such as bowls and tea sets are in the giftware section. The food court offers a dining area to sip bubble tea or munch on treats.
Woo grew up in Fort Lee and attended the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx, before graduating in 1999 from Brown University with a major in economics. He moved to Asia in 2009 to work for a supply-chain management company, meeting his wife in Shanghai. The couple moved to Englewood Cliffs in 2011, where he was first elected in 2016. Woo, a Republican, describes himself as a political moderate.
The family business was always deep in Woo’s heart. He enjoys interacting with customers and coming up with fresh ideas that are on trend. He is also passionate about fitness and is a franchise owner of gym Orange Theory Fitness.
“I am a retail entrepreneur and always enjoy serving customers,” Woo said. “I like to participate in retail of products and services that are in the health and wellness space. I think your health both physically and mentally is the most important wealth.”
Woo is quick with a smile but also lives a life of strict discipline. He’s at work by six every morning, juggling myriad tasks as a business owner and elected official.
An ABC, or American Born Chinese, Woo’s father passed away when he was 11 years old. Recalling the lessons imparted by his father and uncle, Woo knew at a young age that he wanted to control his own destiny.
“I always had that seed in my head,” he said, “to get involved and learn to be an entrepreneur.”
Huang, his business partner and head chef at Kam Man, helps with operations at the market, which employs 40 people. Skilled cooks are difficult to find, with Kam Man operating a van service for workers who live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“We are fortunate to have great staff who have been with us for many, many years,” said Woo, who switches easily between English and fluent Mandarin while speaking with workers. .
It’s the staff that develops relationships with customers, Woo said. Among the many loyal customers at Kam Man is Margaret Lam of Montville, who noted that the market offers an excellent selection of Chinese foods and good service.
A Chinese supermarket is different than other Asian markets. Chinese specialties such as roast pork, soy sauce chicken and roast duck are on the menu at Kam Man. While the store sells kimchi, it’s not the small-batch kimchi found at Korean specialty market H Mart.
The ethnic supermarket sector generates some $44 billion in annual revenue in the U.S. and is only expected to grow as the country’s Asian and Hispanic populations increase, according to projections by market researcher IBIS World. The market has grown about 4% annually since 2016 and is likely to repeat that trend in 2021, the firms said.
Americans palates have been changing. Ethnic foods are gaining in popularity with all demographics from Gen Z to Boomers, said Eugene Fram, a professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology specializing in retail.
Ethnic supermarkets will continue to grow, Woo predicted.
“Food is an international industry and consumers are always looking to spice up their palate,” Woo said.
Kam Man will evolve to adapt to changing consumer tastes, Woo said. He is planning on expanding food court offerings to include a noodle bar or another concept. Woo is also in the process of opening a Chinese hot pot restaurant at The American Dream mall in East Rutherford.
“We are always looking to follow the latest food trends and offer products that are not just delicious, but healthy,” Woo said.
How to get started with Chinese cooking
Don’t know where to begin when it comes to Chinese cooking? Here are some helpful tips from Bill Woo and Tony Huang:
- Familiarize yourself with the taste at a local restaurant. Once you get to know the food, find the recipe.
- Head to the market and locate the shelf where the ingredient is placed and look for the empty or depleted slot. That’s usually where the top selling brand of that item is located.
- There are five key ingredients to Chinese cooking: soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and rice wine. With these five, a home chef can recreate many Chinese dishes.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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