Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 4, 2021

Passion fuels market’s success

Mother, son take Asian Food from survival mode to thriving business

When Paul del Carmen was a teenager in the 1980s, he spent his afternoons after school working at Asian Food & Gifts of Chattanooga, his parents’ store in Hixson.

Del Carmen says he uses the word “working” loosely, as customers were few and far between.

“If I was tired after school, I could take a nap between customers,” del Carmen laughs. “Business was so slow, you could count on one hand the number of customers who came in all day.”

What a difference 40 years makes.

Business is brisk outside del Carmen’s office, where he’s taking refuge during a busy Monday morning. Even when the stream of customers slows to a trickle, his labors as owner of the store never end.

“I work seven days a week,” del Carmen says plainly. “I come in at 8:30 every morning and sometimes don’t leave until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”

When people ask del Carmen why he works all day, every day, he tells them he loves what he does. “It’s my passion,” he insists – before hinting he hasn’t always felt that way.

“Whenever I’m doing something I don’t like to do, I stop complaining and make the best of it,” he explains. “Gradually, my mind accepts what I’m doing. When working 24/7 became my lifestyle, I became happier and was able to do a better job.”

Del Carmen says he inherited his passion for Asian Food & Gifts from his mother, Lynn del Carmen, the original owner of the store.

China native Lynn opened Asian Food & Gifts in 1981 to introduce authentic Asian food and ingredients to Chattanooga.

“She was looking for Asian groceries, but they were very limited in Chattanooga,” her son recalls. “Her family in San Francisco would mail her things, and she would sometimes go to Atlanta, but back then, Atlanta was also very limited, so she opened the store.”

As Del Carmen has already suggested, his mother struggled to keep Asian Food & Gifts in business.

“We went through many hardships,” he says. “We barely made it every month for several years.”

He speculates the small size of the local Asian population was mostly to blame. Even in 2019, the U.S. Census estimated the Asian population in Chattanooga was only 2.7% of around 183,000 residents.

But his mother persisted, partly because she says she thought more people would eventually begin shopping at the store, and partly because she had invested too much of herself in the endeavor to give up, del Carmen says.

Fortunately, he adds, Asian Food & Gifts did begin to attract more and more customers, and today the store enjoys a steady stream of Asian customers, as well as “Southern folks.”

“We’re fortunate to be in this business,” del Carmen continues. “Our competitors are mainly the big stores in Nashville, Atlanta and Huntsville. We try to capture customers before they leave Chattanooga.”

Providing “the best selection of products at the best possible prices” is the key to keeping people from leaving town to buy elsewhere, del Carmen adds.

As he talks, customers are browsing his produce bins for vegetables and fruits that clearly were not grown locally, including fresh lychee (a small, round fruit with sweet white meat), dragon fruit and longan (a musky fruit from a tropical tree).

Del Carmen’s customers can also purchase ready-to-eat Vietnamese sandwiches made with banh mi (the Vietnamese word for bread) and either barbecue, chicken or tofu.

“Our banh mis pair great with chips or cooked bok choy and bamboo shoots,” states a post on Asian Food & Gifts’ Facebook page.

The store’s freezers contain a selection of Filipino desserts, including the trendy ube ice cream, a frozen treat made from purple yams originally grown in the Philippines.

This, del Carmen says, is the just the tip of an iceberg that also includes hundreds of other unique products that brighten the store’s shelves and refrigerators with colorful packaging and exotic foreign names.

In season, Asian Food & Gifts even offers rare products like sugarcane and mangosteen, an edible fruit native to the tropical lands surrounding the Indian Ocean.

Although del Carmen gathers these items from vendors far and wide, they collectively represent the vision of his mother, who immigrated with her Filipino husband, Alex del Carmen, from Laos to the U.S. in 1973.

The couple met while providing medical services to rural Laotians. When communists moved to take over the country, Alex and Lynn chose to immigrate to the U.S. rather than return to either of their home countries.

After the couple arrived in Chattanooga in 1975, Lynn served as a bridge that welcomed other Asians to the city and helped to integrate them into the local community.

In addition to providing translation services to immigrants and refugees in seven Asian languages (including various Chinese dialects), Lynn helped new residents visit doctors, find jobs and settle into life in America.

She also provided a way for refugees and immigrants to enjoy the foods they ate in their native country when she opened Asian Food & Gifts.

As more and more of the people Lynn assisted shopped at her store, she expanded its products to offer a greater variety of ingredients and produce.

Meanwhile, her son had forged a path to California, where he was attending college. But when his father, a surgeon with a local hospital, called and said his mother was tired and considering selling the store, he returned home to help her keep it.

At first, business was slow, so del Carmen opened a travel agency and began to sell insurance in the vacant sections of the small, one-story Hixson Pike building in which Asian Food & Gifts was located.

But as his mother continued to age, he says she needed more and more help, so he finally advised her to sell.

Although she agreed, each time a buyer expressed an interest in purchasing Asian Food & Gifts, she would tell them she’d changed her mind.

“She would say, ‘I have nothing to do at home, and I would miss my store and my customers,’” her son remembers with a smile.

To allow his mother to retire, del Carmen shuttered his travel and insurance businesses and committed himself to running Asian Food & Gifts for two years.

Little did he know he was making a much longer commitment.

“Those two years went by fast, and by that point, I enjoyed running the store, so I decided to keep it as a family business.”

In an act that sealed his fate, Del Carmen knocked down the walls between the store and his former offices and expanded Asian Food & Gifts through the rest of the building.

He was unable, however, to remove one longtime fixture: his mother.

“She would follow me to the store and never stop working. She’d wipe this, wipe that. So, I would say, ‘Mom, you’re tired. Stay home today and follow me to work tomorrow.’ And she would agree, but after I drove to the store, pulled in, turned on the lights and looked outside, her car would be there.

‘She would say, ‘I don’t know what to do at home.’ She loves this place.”

Lynn is now 83, a widow since 2016 and better at listening to her son’s pleas. But her imprint throughout the store is unmistakable, Del Carmen points out.

“When people ask where she is, I tell them I’m the new owner and I fired her.”

Whether or not Asian Food & Gifts remains a family business after del Carmen retires remains to be seen. As a husband and father of two, he says that will be up to his children.

Until that time comes, he will continue to mind the store, as well as his mother’s legacy, “24/7.”