Part of MEDA’s mission in preserving the Mission is to ensure that longtime small businesses can maintain a presence in this ever-changing neighborhood. Such businesses can even come to MEDA for free counsel on how to do so.
When thinking on the perfect model for a 2014 Mission District business, Duc Loi Supermarket immediately comes to mind. Duc Loi means “ethical earnings” in the native Vietnamese tongue of market owners Howard and Amanda Ngo. This market has been serving the Mission neighborhood for over 25 years, but has been at its present location since 2009. The road to today’s thriving business—a strategy that serves as a model for the neighborhood–has been a long one.
MEDA staff made a lunchtime pilgrimage the other day to Duc Loi for some affordable Vietnamese sandwiches and discovered a true melting pot of San Francisco walking the store’s packed aisles. It seems as if all of the neighborhood’s ethnicities are represented. On our visit, we noticed a Chinese woman buying Latin spices, while nearby a Latina was purchasing some seasonings to make some spicy Thai soup.
We decided to chat with the owner to further understand his business philosophy. Sitting down with Howard Ngo was a true delight–he is a definite icon in the neighborhood after a quarter century of running a successful business in the Mission.
MEDA: Where does the Duc Loi story begin?
HN: It all started in Vietnam, where Amanda and I were neighbors in Vĩnh Châu, at the southern tip of the country. In 1975, right after the war, times became very difficult, so we both came to the States as refugees. I wound up in the Deep South at first, in a place called Waycross, Georgia, before taking a bus across the country to San Francisco, where Amanda had been initially sent. We eventually started dating and married in 1989, although we opened our first store two years prior. Amanda had seen an ad in the newspaper for a Vietnamese market for sale on Mission between 18th and 19th streets. We decided to give it a try, but lost money the first two years, when we couldn’t even afford to hire an employee to help us. It was difficult, but we persevered and eventually learned how to successfully run a business. My father and grandfather owned stores in Vietnam, so maybe I inherited my business sense.
MEDA: What is your business philosophy?
HN: I have always wanted to serve the entire Mission District community. I have American products, Latino products and Asian products. The latter includes Vietnamese, of course, plus Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai and Indian. My clientele is 60% Caucasian and 40% Latino and Asian, which is fairly representative of San Francisco. We pride ourselves on that fact. Employees are mostly Mission residents. We have staff fluent in Spanish and different Asian languages. I try to keep my prices reasonable, so that everyone can shop here. I do this by controlling my business spending in other areas. You can get deals at Duc Loi, for instance, five pieces of fresh tofu for $1.19. That’s very different than some of the high-end markets that have lately been opening in the Mission.
MEDA: Can you describe your product line?
HN: We increasingly offer organic products, especially fruits, but also paper products made from recycled materials. Our customers, of all ethnicities, are asking for this. We’ve increased our gluten-free and non-GMO products for the same reason. My wife is an amazing cook. We do a busy lunch business, especially our Vietnamese sandwiches, which are popular. I just added the numbers and Amanda was thrilled to hear that we sold over 10,000 of the #1 sandwich in just 15 months!
MEDA: How did MEDA fit into the equation when your new property was being developed?
HN: I came to MEDA’s Business Development department about six years ago to discuss my proposed project of turning a garbage-strewn, empty parking lot into my new store, with residences above. We discussed how this new construction would be of benefit to the Mission, especially if we could keep some of the units relatively affordable. I am glad that was able to happen and the result is the great space you now see today at the corner of Mission and 18th—a space of which Amanda and I are very proud. MEDA had also talked of hiring employees from the Mission, which we have continued to do.
MEDA: What is your favorite thing about the Mission?
HN: It’s the diversity of the people and cultures. I like to think that my store is a microcosm of the neighborhood as a whole. That goal is always at the forefront of my mind.
Duc Loi Supermarket
2200 Mission St. @ 18th
San Francisco, CA 94110