In late August, I learned that an old friend with whom I had lost contact was coming to visit the University of Michigan. When thinking of a place to meet, a common friend and I blurted out the same answer simultaneously: “the Northside Plymouth Road Mall!” The area, which houses a host of Chinese businesses, from grocery stores and restaurants to entertainment, has long been colloquially referred to as “A2 Chinatown” among some of my Chinese classmates. For me, meeting there is not just an excursion, but a homecoming.
As an international student, I am intrinsically fascinated by ethnic businesses that provide a window for cultural exchange. I was even more excited when I learned that these businesses have been integrated into their neighborhoods, creating a pocket of quaintness unlike other suburban strip malls that are dominated by national chains. Think the Lululemon, Madewell, Anthropologie combo nestled in Arbor Hills Shopping Center.
In an effort to uncover the business and community stories, I set out to interview some of the business owners and neighbors who generously invited me into their time machines.
Packard/Platt: The second generations who carry on the family heritages
In a small section at Packard/Platt intersection, there is a strip mall hosting Korean, Indian, Middle Eastern and East European grocery stores, tightly packed within a line-up of other ethnic businesses — a place that was once dubbed “The United Nations at the intersection of Packard Street and Platt Road.”
When I first entered the Korean Grocery Galleria Market on a Saturday afternoon, Jason Bang, the manager, had already been standing behind the counter for six hours. For years, Jason and his mom have been the fixture of this mid-sized market and assume the full responsibility of stocking the market, organizing the carts and greeting the customers.
However, long hours didn’t wear down Bang’s energy; he engaged with each customer checking out, conversing about topics ranging from recipe recommendation to politics.
“I do enjoy working — every day is a different challenge,” Bang said. “Every day you get to meet different people who are either a very interesting person or kind of weird.”
Bang’s past work experience doesn’t always feature this rigid schedule. When his father, Hyun Bang, was first operating this store, Jason was working in South Korea. Gradually, he found himself straddled between two countries, helping out the family business here while maintaining freelance jobs in South Korea. Jason ended up taking over the store. He was transparent in expressing what needs to change, namely more active food culture education here in Ann Arbor.
“There are social media feeds and YouTube videos that tell us different interesting things that people can try,” Jason said. “But one thing that is continuously recurring is that there isn’t enough education … I always tried to introduce a little history behind things and explain why certain recipes might work better with these things.”
In Jason’s store, there are popular Korean items like kimchi and bulgogi as well as new items announced through the store’s social media feeds. The store also features a significant selection of Japanese cooking ingredients and snacks, like mochi and Yakult. Jason attributed this to the strong crossover between the two cuisine cultures.
“There are many popular Korean snacks that have their Japanese counterparts, and vice versa,” Jason said. “Cooking-wise there’s a lot of overlap between Korea and Japan. Even in Ann Arbor, some successful Japanese restaurants are also managed by Koreans.”
Across the street sits a family-owned Mexican eatery, TMAZ Taqueria. Similar to restaurants found in southwest Detroit, TMAZ takes the name from the owners’ city of origin, bringing their hometown culture to Ann Arbor.
Kevin Hervert-Trinidad, who took over the restaurant’s operations (together with his brother Josue Hervert-Trinidad) from his parents so that they could focus on their new Westside branch. Kevin explained how his hometown culture guided TMAZ’s restaurant practices in order to distinguish themselves from fast-food chains downtown.
“We are from the Temascalcingo region of Mexico, so we abbreviate it to TMAZ,” Kevin said. “Our food is different because it’s mainly just from our local area.”
Kevin acknowledged how this strip at Packard and Platt attracted a portfolio of diverse immigrant-owned businesses over time. The caring nature of the late owner of the property became an anchor for immigrant businesses strained by financial challenges and fast-growing rent elsewhere.
“We were first introduced here by an associate we were working with at Taco King, and we later sold it because at that time the rent was super high,” Kevin said. “The owners of this strip were phenomenal people who would take care of us, and the rent was nice.”
Multiple residents have pointed me to the connection between neighborhood demographics and business profiles. The high concentration of housing voucher programs has introduced socioeconomic diversity to the area. The diversity of the businesses in turn provides ethnic minority groups a sense of connection and belonging.
Speaking about Aladdin’s Market, a Middle Eastern grocery store, long-term resident Mojdeh Meghnot, who is of Persian heritage, is full of gratitude. It is here that she found a community of Iranian regulars and a caring store owner who is willing to go out of his way to help people.
“I go there often to buy Persian herbs and cookies and things like that, and also I really really like their Bulgarian cheese,” Meghnot said. “(The owner) has pretty much any kind of flavor I need, and every time I ask him for a new product that he doesn’t have in the store, he tries to get it for me … He treats us like family.”
Plymouth Road Mall: The Asian culture melting pot created by U-M graduates
At Plymouth Mall, a two-story strip that stands at the northeast corner of Plymouth Road, six Chinese businesses, two Indian and one Korean bakery pack the perimeter. The mall carries deep ties with the University as well. Many founders or owners of these businesses — including Way 1 Chinese Market, Curry Up, Songbird Cafe and Midnight Karaoke — had either worked or studied at the University before owning their businesses.
Jenny Song, the owner of Songbird Cafe, is a “super townie.” She grew up in a Korean immigrant family on the Northside of Ann Arbor, attended Huron High School and moved on to study at the University. The experiential knowledge made Song believe this area on the Northside was ripe for a community cafe.
“We are a locally-owned business that has a focus on community,” Song said. “When you walk in, you can tell from your seating or dining experience that it’s not too formal. I just knew that this type of environment would do really well on the Northside, because before we started, which was 11 years ago, there were mostly big chains and corporate types of food service.”
Upon first glance at the menu, Songbird doesn’t appear to differ from a typical American cafe or brunch place. But the creative fusions envisioned by Song and implemented by her mom — including pistachio chicken and a gochujang honey chicken wrap — have earned Songbird great popularity.
In our conversation, Song attributed her business’s success more to her upbringing than her education credentials.
“I think (food) is very central to the family dynamic,” Song said. “Korean people in general are very passionate about food, and they like sharing information and ideas. Also, my mom was very passionate about food and detail-oriented so that she has been central to our family, which has been an inspiration. And as far as innovation, I think that is just part of my personality and my mom’s personality. We just have that entrepreneurial spirit.”
The Plymouth Mall has long been a shopping and dining destination for international students like me. And similar to the Packard/Platt section, the area also carries significant value for its surrounding neighborhood. According to the 2020 census, the census tract adjacent to the Plymouth Mall is 28% Asian American, compared to 15.6% city wide. The robust business scene in the area also provides neighbors with walkable access to most of the necessary amenities.
“In the past, when we didn’t have these options, we had to get in a car and go to get stuff like gingers and fresh vegetables,” Praveena Ramaswami, a Northside community organizer, told me. “Now this area has become a big part of the community, and people can get not only food, but all kinds of basic supplies. The mall is also convenient for students because it is accessible by bus.”
What the future holds
For TMAZ, the pandemic hit was painful. The restaurant used to be a combination of three services, including a popular bakery. The longtime baker has now retired because of a family loss.
As foot traffic resumed, TMAZ was resurrected. Kevin now imagined different ways to recoup the loss, including transforming the dining area into a bar restaurant.
“We’re in the process of getting a liquor license to make this into a bar restaurant,” Kevin said. “We expect people to come in fluidly. Our business has already picked up so we’re actually kind of regretting we gave up the third (bakery).”
Even without the difficulties posed by the pandemic, ethnic businesses across the nation are facing deeper dilemmas. A 2019 New York Times analysis found that more socially mobile second-generation immigrants are less likely to own businesses. And across the board, Chinese and Korean second-generation entrepreneurs usually end up in technology and consulting rather than the food industry, despite it being their parent generation’s top choice and in constantly high demand.
Many first-generation American immigrants founded ethnic businesses to get their feet in the door and provide their children a better future, but as their children advance, many family businesses falter without inheritance.
Song seems to have taken an opposite path. She worked in the corporate world for many years before returning home and becoming a community food entrepreneur.
“(Working in corporate) only solidified for me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Song said. “When I went back to school to get my MBA, that is just to get the skillset to help me be more like a big-picture thinker.”
As Song’s mom nears retirement, she said she is also considering the future of Songbird and her own career. Songbird closed its Westside location last year to focus on its Plymouth Road site. Song said this opened a new chapter both for the business and herself.
“I’m a true entrepreneur at heart, so there’s a lot of other business ideas that I want to pursue in the future,” Song said. “That business (Westside) was awesome, and it was the right thing at that time. But for us, it was just more about what’s the next chapter both personally and professionally.”
For me, “strip” has been a foreign concept until I started following city politics several months ago. In both academia and urban planning, this word carries the legacy of auto-oriented suburbanization and runs antithetical to the sustainability and affordability goals pursued by a progressive city.
However, these strip-mall interviews challenged my conception of a monolithic suburban life. From the suburbs of San Francisco to Atlanta, all these major cities have a suburban strip that tells the story of immigration and the diverse experiences within them.
Statement Contributor Chen Lyu can be reached at email@example.com.