Grocery store brings sunshine to C-U

By Jamie Loo

Xiao Shan Chen never stops working.

“Every day I am working, work, work, work,” Chen said.

Sue, or just Mrs. Chen, is well known in the area for her Chinese cooking. At noon on weekdays Chen’s family-owned business, Sunshine Grocery Store on the corner of East Washington and South Race streets in Urbana, becomes alive with people. Long lines form as students and staff from Urbana High School pack the small lobby and wait to buy pop, chips, candy and some of Chen’s fresh egg rolls, crab rangoons, wontons, lo mein and fried rice. This is the busiest time of day for the small grocery store and carry out place. The bulk of their business is during the eight months of the school year and business is much slower in the summer, Chen said. By 1:30 p.m. all is quiet again.

Ten percent of businesses in Champaign County are minority owned, according to a 1997 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Minority entrepreneurship has been steadily increasing over the past decade and the government has attempted to help businesses through programs such as HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zone). The number of minority owned businesses has been growing at a rate of 17 percent a year, according to the Milken Institute, an economic group in California.

Chen and her husband immigrated to the United States from China 18 years ago and have always lived in central Illinois. Before starting the business Chen and her husband worked on their organic farm, growing fruits and vegetables and raising pigs and chickens. About seven or eight years ago business started going downhill. Chen said you could only sell chickens and pigs at 29 cents a pound, hardly enough money for a profit.

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“A lot of farms quit,” Chen said. “Cannot make even.”

Chen said they wanted to have a business in Urbana or Champaign because there are a lot of Asian students in the area. There were no Asian grocery stores in Urbana, which led them to look for a space there instead of Champaign. The business has been in existence for five years now, but Chen said the building has a long tradition as a fixture in the community. Before their family rented out the building, it was a pizza shop for 25 years and prior to that it housed another small family-owned grocery store.

“Southside Grocery, owned by American family,” Chen said.

The family still maintains their organic farm in Penfield, where they also have two small ponds with catfish. The fruits and vegetables from the farm are used in Chen’s dishes, sold in the market and also at the farmer’s market at Lincoln Square. Their daily trek to and from Penfield is a 45-minute drive in good weather – about an hour in the winter. Chen said they have a back room where they can stay overnight if there is poor weather, but she prefers to get the children home. After they get home Chen’s husband works on the farm until sundown. She said the farm is hard work to maintain alongside the business. Since business is slow in the summer, they can devote more time to the farm.

“Oh my gosh! Almost 4 o’clock! I need to cook,” Chen said.

Chen has a customer coming at 4 p.m. for a special order of her Sunshine Kitchen special kung pao chicken. Customers tell her exactly what they want and she cooks to order. She doesn’t have a set menu aside from the lunchtime staples. Regular customers, who are a mixture of people from the neighborhood and Asian faculty members and students, make requests for special dishes all the time and Chen is willing to oblige. She goes toward the front of the store and begins picking up fresh onions and 10 ripe green chili peppers.

“This guy wants it very hot, that’s why I put a lot. Last time he said he wants more hot. I already put a lot,” she jokes.

Ginger, oil, rice wine, broccoli, chicken, onions and peppers all go into a metal wok. She stirs the ingredients in the fire with a metal spoon, which she says influences the taste. Chen said this customer hates mushrooms and carrots so she doesn’t put them in. He, along with many of her other “American” customers, have been requesting dishes with only vegetables because of the Atkins diet. She only charges $4.75 for most of her vegetable dishes, which she prefers to cook.

“It’s very important to eat healthy,” Chen said.

She said she sneaks in as many vegetables into her fried rice as possible so that the students can eat healthier. Chen also makes fresh juice for customers who request it. She tries to squeeze fresh juices from grapefruits, oranges and whatever else is available for her children every day.

“They need Vitamin C. They drink pop. A lot of pop,” Chen said.

Sometimes she buys juice but says it has too much sugar. She would rather take the time to make it so her son, 21, and her daughter, 13, can be healthy. She said she expects her children to study hard and do well in school, and she and her husband will work hard to take care of everything else.

“I don’t like her work too hard,” she says. “I’m working for them.”

Though she is happy with her life, Chen said she would love to go back to her old profession, high school teaching.

“A long time ago, I teach chemistry,” she said. “Now I come here I can’t.”

Chen said that in the United States her degree is almost useless because her English isn’t very good. She said it’s tough to do translations of the scientific terms or to find somewhere that would hire her. Her husband has a Ph.D. in physiology.

Chen is not alone. According to a 2003 report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, many immigrants in the state, particularly European and Asian, are highly educated in their home countries, but language barriers and problems transferring credentials keep them from getting jobs. In the state, approximately 24.6 percent of immigrants have college degrees.

Even though Sunshine Grocery is the only Asian grocery store in Urbana, Chen said their distance from campus makes it difficult to get students besides by word of mouth. An ethnic grocery store is hard to manage because Chen said customers will only come in for a few items every few weeks or every other month.

“You can’t finish one bottle of soy sauce in one day,” Chen said. “Very low profit, not easy.”

Their store carries many Chinese items that some of the other stores don’t have and she said when customers come in looking for items they don’t have she sends them to other Asian grocers. Chen and her husband are familiar with the other six Asian grocery stores in Champaign and some of their owners.

It’s 4:03 p.m. Her customer was supposed to be here three minutes ago.

“I’m always on time, never one minute late,” Chen says as she stares at the clock. She hates it when her customers come in late because once the steam sets into the vegetables they start changing colors and lose their crispness. She quickly walks to the back room and opens the Styrofoam box to check on the vegetables. The door swings open in the front and the bell rings.

“Hi Les, can I help you,” Chen asks as she walks to the counter.

A small boy stands on tiptoes as he looks over the counter.

“Can I get a root beer?” Les asks, also pointing to a pack of candy. He pulls change out of his pocket and carefully counts out a dollar for Chen.

“Thank you, Mrs. Chen,” he says.

Chen said Les lives across the street and that his sister usually plays with her daughter, Lisa. She loves the neighbors in the area. Sunshine Grocery has a number of steady customers who live in the neighborhood and students from campus who frequent their store. While Chen doesn’t know all of their names, she recognizes their faces and their voices when they call.

“If you do business you have to have your own customers that come back,” Chen said. “Not like in big city, in big city you don’t care.”

Finally, Larry Lister walks in for his order at 4:17 p.m. Lister said he found out about Sunshine Grocery through an Urbana list serve. At the request of her neighbors, Chen started a free cooking class every other Sunday and Lister is one of the students. When he found out that she also cooked food for carry out by request he said he became hooked. Even though he is learning how to cook many of the dishes Chen prepares, he said he still comes to buy it at least once a week and also buys fresh produce from there.

“It’s custom cooked food,” Lister said. “It really is a kind of neighborhood place, like in the old tradition.”

It’s now 4:45 p.m. and Chen begins to clean up the kitchen as things wind down for the day. They normally open at 8 a.m. and close around 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and it’s a long drive home. They’re open until 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and are now closed on Sundays. Chen said she and her husband decided to close on Sundays now so that they can spend more time with their children. Even though the grocery store and carry out counter are hard work, Chen said she enjoys her work because she knows people in the community like their business.

“I’m glad. When people are happy, I am happy,” Chen said.