Owner of Hmong market in St. Paul looks to expandby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
A no-frills Asian shopping bazaar in St. Paul attracts thousands of customers a day. Now, the owner of International Market in Frogtown wants to expand his business into a tourist destination. He's asking the city of St. Paul for $2 million in tax breaks to complete his dream. But first, he may need to improve his reputation with city inspectors.
St. Paul, Minn. — Stepping into the Frogtown emporium is like walking into a Bangkok street market. Each shop is a 12-by-12-foot stall separated by metal wire and two-by-fours. You can find everything from wok spoons to padded bras and copper bracelets.
On a recent afternoon, a man and a boy were selling live pheasants out of their truck near the parking lot. The man told me he had already sold 50 birds that day, but he quickly packed up his things after I started taping.
Inside, Lee Xiong was selling Hmong DVDs. She has actually starred in some of the movies.
"I'm the producer, singer, actor, and a lot of people, they know me," Xiong told me. "I'm a movie star. Do you want to look at my movies?"
It's hard to fathom that all this is taking place at a former lumberyard on Como Ave., just blocks from the state Capitol. On the weekends, the old warehouses teem with slow-moving crowds. More than 200 Hmong vendors have set up shop here.
And many more want in, according to Toua Xiong, the owner of International Market. Xiong said he has a waiting list of 400 would-be vendors who have signed letters of intent to fill his space.
Xiong has met with city officials to discuss his plan to expand and remodel the site. His lease with the lumber company expires this year, and Xiong has an option to buy. He also has an ambitious vision.
"It's going to be a tourist attraction for the city of St. Paul, especially the Frogtown neighborhood," he said. "That's my biggest dream."
Partnering with Xiong on the project is Dean Dovolis of DJR Architecture in Minneapolis. The renovations, they say, will give Xiong an opportunity to bring the sprawling complex up to city code.
They'll repave the potholed parking lot, redo the interiors, and give the market a more consistent look. But it won't look too polished, Dovolis said.
"This is not Pottery Barn," he said. "If you're looking for that, this is not the place to go to."
But early renderings of the food court also show a Subway and a KFC. That's to attract the Capitol lunch crowd, Xiong said.
Plans also call for building a light-industrial aerospace facility. The entire project would cost $10 million, and Xiong said he has the financing to make it work.
Dovolis thinks the Hmong market has a better chance of succeeding than the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, where some vendors are struggling to make money. Dovolis points out that the St. Paul market already has a proven clientele and interested tenants.
City planning officials said they can't speak to the viability of the proposal because Xiong hasn't formally applied for the money. They also know little about his financial background.
But for years, Xiong has been on the city's radar.
"Toua Xiong is a very interesting person," said Bill Gunther, who is in charge of environmental health inspections for the city. "If you didn't have to deal with him regulatory-wise, you'd probably appreciate his unique person, rather than if you're in enforcement and always fighting with him."
Gunther said he respects Xiong for pioneering a unique business model. Following his success, a similar Asian market recently opened up on Pierce Butler Route.
But Gunther thinks Xiong cuts corners and lacks control over his tenants.
"We've seen them deliver meat that we feel that they're taking home and storing them at home. We deal with having too many food items," Gunther said. "You go there and you see 12 different entrees, and it's a 10-by-10 place, for god's sake."
And Xiong's decisions have been controversial with some of his tenants.
Shopkeeper Zoua Vue pays $960 a month for her two-stall shop. She's bothered that Xiong didn't turn on the heat this winter until the end of November last year. Vue also said it's hard to make money when Xiong lets in vendors who are carrying the same products as her.
"They just copy, and they do the same thing, and that's why business is slow. I don't know what can we do," said Vue.
Kevin Yang left his job as an assistant engineer and took over a food stall called Hmong Express Cuisine about a year ago. Behind his small buffeet counter, he serves up papaya salad, sour bamboo, pork stomach and beef tendon.
Yang said he traded in his white-collar job because he wanted to be his own boss. But now, he's just barely getting by with the business.
Yang says he's all for Toua Xiong's big dreams. He could use the extra customers.
- Morning Edition, 02/05/2008, 6:55 a.m.