Madison Oriental Market

Cynthia Lee, manager of Madison Oriental Market, which will undergo renovations and upgrades this summer to better serve its diverse customer base. 

Madison Oriental Market offers international food to the city's north side, but the store has clearly seen better days.

The lighting is dim and the shelving is dated and worn. The produce coolers couldn’t be less energy efficient. The aging freezers grumble and grind audibly and are known to break down. Often. One is broken right now, which forced manager Cynthia Lee to shove everything into a neighboring freezer.

But thanks to funds from the city of Madison and other sources, that’s all about to change. The market, at 1197 N. Sherman Ave., will undergo renovations and updates this summer, adding new equipment, a deli and dining area.

That will give the owners the ability to bring more fresh produce and meat to the store, sell hot Hmong food in a city with few Hmong options and partner with nearby FEED kitchens. This all fits in the store’s larger mission to widen its selection of global grocery offerings to better serve the neighborhood.

Cynthia’s parents, Kyle and Choua Lee, bought the market in 2017, then called Hmoob Oriental Market, pulling Cynthia from her job in cake decorating to help them take on the task. Right now, running the store is a family affair, run by the trio and Cynthia’s brothers.

“It's always been a dream of my parents to have something to be able to pass down to us kids,” Cynthia said in a GoFundMe post.

When the Lees took over, the market offered mainly Asian and African products. They want to retain those customers, providing even more ingredients and options for them, while also branching out to better serve Latino and Indian customers.

That can be tough with tight shelving space in a 4,000 square-foot store, but Cynthia’s worked hard to stock the foods her customers want. The produce section boasts yucca, Ghana yams and taro, and customers can find frijoles pintos, plum sauce, quail eggs and a 24-ounce container of sushi ginger on the shelves. Instead of grabbing Cheetos at the checkout counter, customers can reach for bags of plantain strips.

Sometimes finding the right foods is a trial-and-error endeavor. Cynthia’s bought ingredients requested by her African customers, only to find her product was from the wrong region of Africa. She finally found a source for Korean rice cakes, to great success, only to have her supplier immediately run out.

“We had a lot of people coming in with recipes … and I’m like, ‘Oh darn, I don’t have it!” Cynthia said. 

But she’ll continue to work hard to serve her customers, whom she estimates are 80% nonwhite, and add more Indian spices and Mexican fare. Plus, she wants to add staples like milk and bread for the seniors without cars who walk to the store from the nearby senior apartments, and is considering adding grocery delivery services.

Also on the horizon: hot food. The project will add a kitchen and dining area, and the Lees plan to offer traditional Hmong dishes like sticky rice, papaya salad and pork belly, hopefully eventually adding Vietnamese pho and African cuisine to the menu.

There aren’t many places to get Hmong food around town, Cynthia said, and the hot food can hopefully also tempt employees from the neighboring businesses to stop in for lunch.

The space will also create a more symbiotic relationships with nearby FEED Kitchens: they’ll offer more ingredients for FEED members and sell member’s products. The Northside Planning Council and FEED Kitchens have partnered with the Lees through the renovation process, and Martee Mikalson, FEED Kitchens bakery coordinator and owner of Martee's Consulting, has been instrumental in helping the Lees design and plan for the improvements.

The whole project started when the Lees started looking into remodeling to include the kitchen and eating area, after repeated requests from customers. It turned out they would have to do massive updates to get the space up to code, which, as the market said in a Facebook post, meant “pretty much new everything.”

First up: it’s time to ditch the old freezers, which are forever breaking down or freezing and rethawing, which can mean a significant loss of product.

The open coolers and fussy freezers will be replaced with a new, 26-door freezer and closed-door cooler, meaning energy savings and longer product shelf life. It will also allow Cynthia to sell more fresh meat and seafood, rather than having to freeze most of it right away.

For the kitchen, they’ll need an oven, six-burner stove, char grill and a new grease trap. There will also be aesthetic upgrades, like better lighting and new shelving units.

The roughly $480,000 project just got a big boost via $150,000 in Healthy Retail Access Program funds approved by the City Council last Tuesday. That money will pay for the new freezers and coolers, as the program is focused on elements of the expansion that help stock fresh and healthy foods.

The rest of the project will be funded by a bank loan, an MG&E loan, MG&E’s Focus on Energy program, which provides financial incentives for using efficient and renewable technology, and infrastructure upgrades by the Alexander Company, the property’s landlord. That leaves a gap of about $50,000 in their own funds, Cynthia said, and they are fundraising online to help cover that cost.

They plan to begin the remodel by the end of May or early June, and complete it in three to four months, hosting a grand “re-opening” event at its conclusion. They will stay open for the project, minus a few necessary closed days for construction.

This is the second major project the Healthy Retail Access Program has taken on since it was set up in 2015, the first being the over $150,000 grant for Luna’s Groceries in the Allied neighborhood, said George Reistad, the city’s food policy director.

Reistad noted that the city program is housed in the economic development division. Ethnic food retailers historically haven’t had the same type of access to capital necessary to expand, he said, and the city’s program helps businesses like Madison Oriental Market make that important step.

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