Now reading The Fruit Barons of Brooklyn

The Fruit Barons of Brooklyn

How is the fruit so cheap?

In Southern California, where I grew up, produce is abundant and cheap, if controversial. In school you watch documentaries about Cesar Chavez and learn that Allen Ginsberg poem about the supermarket by heart. Your half-Mexican friend explains that she and her mother don’t buy grapes because of the poor farmers, but you’ve grown up in a Korean household, and fruit, to you, is a gift. It is also dessert. You bring boxes of Asian pears covered in a lattice of protective foam as housewarming gifts, and a watermelon carved in the shape of a basket to your classroom birthday party instead of a cake.

In New York City, produce is sad-looking and expensive; it lacks magic here. But if you know where to look, you can almost always find decent goods at competitive prices courtesy of your local Korean greengrocer.

As a child of immigrants, I love getting a good deal, which means that I spend a lot of time comparison-shopping. I would rather spend the extra half hour traveling to a second store than overpay for a single item. I travel to New Jersey for H Mart and trek to Costco four times a year for bulk items, but the store I go to the most is also the closest: a tiny, unassuming fruit and vegetable grocer one block from my apartment called Mr. CoCo.

IMG_8927Mr. CoCo sits on Myrtle Avenue (once known as Murder Avenue) near the intersection at Vanderbilt Avenue on the border of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. It’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and sells fresh fruit and vegetables at rock-bottom prices. It’s owned by Koreans. I know this because they announce their offerings on neon paper signs that are scrawled in script that belongs to a Korean person. (All English written by Korean natives is identical in the way that French handwriting is recognizably French.)

Mr. CoCo’s convenience is a plus, but I’d still go there even if it were farther. The real deal is the produce displayed out front. It’s abundant and cheap, usually priced in $1 increments, making shopping fun and easy. Limes are seven for $1, but in leaner times, you’ll only get five. You can get two grapefruits, or three navel oranges, or two bunches of scallions for $1, depending on the day. I pick up bananas for $0.79 a pound, or, if I’m feeling rich, spring for the organic at $0.99. My favorite deal is loose green beans in a crate that you can grab by the handful and stuff in a plastic bag that you tear off from a roll suspended above you by a string, $1 for a pound. But make sure to get more than you think you’ll need—because tomorrow they’ll be gone. At Mr. CoCo, you never know what you’re gonna get, and not knowing is half the fun.

You have to be careful, though. What you get outside is not always going to be the same as what you get inside, and you have to be truthful when the cashier asks, “Inside or outside?” Because the $1 strawberry crates outside are not identical to the fresher looking, more expensive ones inside, and that’s by design.

Once you’re lured inside, you’ll find the usual staples of gentrifying-Brooklyn—Kettle Brand chips instead of Lay’s, Justin’s organic peanut butter cups instead of Reese’s, pet food, Bob’s Red Mill goods, kombucha, beer—but I don’t mess with that stuff. Like most corner stores, the markup on non-produce is high, but if you’re a smart (obsessive) shopper like me, you’ll go elsewhere for those. (In many ways, I am their non-ideal customer.)

The Korean greengrocer—and its counterpart the Hispanic bodega—is something of a New York City institution. In recent years, though, many have been forced to close due to the influx of chain stores and rising rents. So I was surprised to see that same hand-written signage nestled among other storefront produce displays throughout Brooklyn. I wondered if one person was responsible for writing them. (If I have one talent—I would even venture to say that it’s a preternatural one—it’s being able to recognize faces, and, as it turns out, handwriting.)

It wasn’t until I got off the B62 bus at the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza Bus Terminal one evening that I had confirmation. I was early to meet people, and I needed to pick up a snack. In front of me I saw those precisely written signs again. I looked up and beheld a cartoon pineapple wearing sunglasses and a sideways grin, one arm cocked on his would-be hip, and next to him, his namesake: Mr. Piña Fruit & Vegetables. He was the obvious partner to Mr. CoCo, who also wore sunglasses and a toothy grin. I grabbed a clamshell of $2 grapes and went inside to pay. At the cash wrap I recognized two Koreans, a lady and a younger dude, whom I had previously seen working at Mr. CoCo. I don’t think they recognized me. Still, I made a slight bow of greeting, which they didn’t seem to register. They rang me up efficiently and not-unwarmly, as Koreans do. Then I was out the door, jostling past the Hasids and the Polish grandmothers and the hipsters, because another thing about these stores is that they’re popular with just about everybody. Who doesn’t love a great deal?

I needed to know: Who was the proprietor behind these stores with sassy anthropomorphic fruits as their mascots? Who was the real Mr. CoCo, and what secrets would he reveal to me? I marched to Mr. CoCo, this time for answers. There, I spoke to D., who said I could find the boss, Mr. Yoon, at Mr. Lime on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. There’s a Mr. Lime?? I thought to myself. I took the B69 to 7th Avenue and 9th Street, where I found Mr. Yoon merchandising packages of seaweed snacks.

“How much is this?” he calls out to a cashier, holding up a seaweed snack. She looks up with a sly smile. “It’s $1.75, not $1, okay? $1.75!” he says, mock-yelling at her. She goes back to ringing up customers without saying a word.

I approach him and explain that D. at Mr. CoCo sent me, and that I would like to talk to him about the store. He’s skeptical, but when I tell him that I’m Korean too, he switches from English to his native tongue: “Is that so?” he asks. Connection established, we go next door to a coffee shop that is also owned by Koreans, and he buys me a tea. I do my best to conduct the interview in broken Korean. He is gracious but I can sense a little wariness on his part. After all, I am being quite nosey.

His name is Jack, is in his late twenties and manages Mr. Lime. He is the youngest of the five brothers (the leader and boss-boss being June Ha, who is in his mid-thirties) who own the cluster of groceries, of which there are six, all located in Brooklyn. (His family lives in Flushing.) His two eldest brothers emigrated from South Korea to New York City a little over ten years ago and started working in similar stores. After a few years of saving and learning the business, they were able to set up a grocery of their own.

The first one, Mr. Kiwi’s, opened in 2007 in Bushwick. After that came Mr. CoCo in 2010, followed shortly thereafter by Mr. Piña, then Mr. Melon in Fort Greene in 2012, Mr. Lime in 2014, and finally Mr. Berry in Greenpoint, which opened last year. All six stores are open twenty-four hours a day, carry fresh sushi, and, with the exception of Mr. CoCo, have juice bars. Mr. Kiwi’s and Mr. Piña are the biggest of the stores, though Jack says they’re all equally busy.

Even as mom-and-pop stores struggle to stay afloat throughout the city, business in Brooklyn seems to be doing well for the brothers, so much so that they’re slated to open two more stores: one on Knickerbocker Avenue in April, and another on Lafayette Avenue in July. It takes them about two years to find a location, and they consider foot traffic, the number of apartments in the area, the size of the nearest intersection, the proximity of chain supermarkets, and access to public transportation. Indeed, all of them except for Mr. CoCo are either on the same block as—or within a block or two of—a subway station.

IMG_8976---PinaWhat I really want to know is what they’ll be called. Jack says that the names of the stores are still pending. I offer up “Mr. Mango” as a suggestion. Then I wonder if one of them might ever be named a “Mrs.” Fruit. Jack says that since they’re all brothers, they’ve chosen to name the stores “Mr.”
They buy their produce from the market in College Point, Queens every morning between 3 and 4 a.m. Four or five of their trucks meet them at the market to pick up the goods, and then bring them to the stores. “We don’t sell fruit to make money,” Jack says. “We think of it as giving it away. When people come to buy fruit, they buy other things.” By selling cheaply, they are able to sell in high volume. I don’t tell him that I rarely buy anything else besides fruit and vegetables at his store, even though I think he’d understand.

I tell Jack that I love their signs, specifically the uniformity of style, the authoritative penmanship. I want to know who writes them. “Whoever’s there that day,” he replies.

“But they all look the same!” I blurt in English. It’s difficult for me to express in my barely proficient Korean that it’s those signs that led me to pursue this meeting in the first place, but I try anyway.

It’s the consistency of their enterprise that I admire the most, the brilliance I see lurking behind every paper sign and cartoon fruit. I want to explain that I love Mr. CoCo as more than just a store, that I am so drawn to their hand-written signs that I am able to recognize them on other stores just by glimpsing them on a drive-by.
“I see. Thank you,” he responds, baring no emotion. “I guess if you follow the style of one sign, they will begin to look similar across the stores.”

I was hoping for a more revealing answer, but I move on. From what I can see, they must do gangbusters. I want to know specifics, hard numbers, but I know that’s not a polite question I can ask. Instead of being nuanced, I take the opposite approach.

“How’s business?” I ask.
“It’s enough to make a living,” he replies.

I knew he’d say that, so I try another way. “Is your family… rich?”
“No way,” he replies, laughing.

I ask what lessons he’s learned while running the business with his brothers. “I’ve learned how to do business, definitely,” he says. “But it’s very hard, the physical work.”

Before I went looking for Mr. CoCo, I fantasized about being asked to go on a ride-along to the produce market one morning and learning the secrets of running a mini fruit store empire. But the secret is that there is no secret. Only hard work.

I think back to summers in middle school when I reluctantly worked the cash register at my grandmother’s café. I’d leave the house with her at 5 a.m. or earlier to drive to the produce market downtown to buy crates of lettuce and tomatoes and potatoes. When the café closed in the evening, I’d count the cash twice and stack plastic utensils neatly in boxes as she did the biweekly shopping at Sam’s Club. Sometimes I’d have to shred chicken, or peel hot potatoes by hand (never with a peeler). Back at home, she’d ask me to massage her feet, which were still soft despite decades of backbreaking work, but I didn’t much want to because they were still feet. Then I’d remember that she’d been doing much harder work for the past three decades, running eleven different business at one point, after losing her husband at thirty-six and coming to the United States as a widow with three young children so they could have better life.

It’s because of the struggles of both my grandmothers, and of Jack’s family, and of countless other immigrants, that their children and their grandchildren—me, basically—could one day waltz into a convenience store to politely inquire, “What price bananas? Are you my angel?”