Flint, MI— Since 2005, those in the know have been visiting a small, unassuming store tucked away in Flint’s west side to get ahold of exotic and hard-to-find Asian products.
Whether they’re in need of frozen octopus, milkshake sodas, or a 40-pound bag of Jasmine rice, Seoul Market has it.
So rare and unique are some of these items that people from across the state are often willing to make an hour-plus drive to Seoul Market.
“People, they will come from Saginaw, Midland, Detroit, Lansing to this store. We try to have what they need. That is why they come here,” said Sam Park, the store’s owner.
Over the years, Seoul has developed a dedicated customer base made up of both Flint locals and customers who regularly visit from as far away as Detroit. Park’s focus on the quality and expansiveness of his stock, paired with the fact he owns the only Korean grocery store in Flint, has allowed Seoul Market to become the go-to store for Korean produce, makeup, cookware, and more.
Over the years, Seoul’s products have shifted along with the buying habits of its customers. Soon after opening the store, Park said he began to realize many of his customers were from the Philippines. Not too long after that, Park added a whole aisle dedicated to goods from the Philippines including beauty products, frozen products, candies, spices, and fruits.
In total, Park estimates about 40 percent of his clientele is white while the remaining 60% is an even mix of Korean and Filipino people.
Recently, his dedication to his customer’s needs paid off. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shipping produce and other products from anywhere in Asia became increasingly limited, Park said. As borders closed and commerce came to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, keeping Seoul stocked became difficult.
For a few months, in 2020, Seoul was forced to prioritize what it would stock. During that time, Park said, it was his regulars who helped keep him in business. Fortunately for him, Park said he never experienced any of the anti-Asian sentiment that swept the country in 2020 and 2021.
“It was hard to get shipments from countries like Korea and Philippines,” Park said. “(There were) some new customers when COVID happened but mostly people who already came here did the shopping, getting what they always get. There were no problems with anyone.”
The only issue Park faces, one he’s had to deal with long before COVID, is with pricing.
“Some markets in Chicago or Detroit, they sell a lot more product, it is easy to get better prices that way, here we sell a lot of things, but few of each,” Park said.
The fact of the matter, Park said, is that Seoul is more of a specialty store than it is a market. Its small customer base, albeit consistent, does not buy up a high quantity of products, meaning whenever Park orders a re-stock, he sometimes doesn’t meet the requirement to buy products at wholesale prices.
Park bought the building with the money he and his wife, Kwang Sun raised while working at a dry cleaner throughout the 2000s and late ’90s. Their store, Park said, has afforded him and his family everything they’ve needed, he said. The couple, who now lives in Grand Blanc, never hired an employee in the store’s 15-year history.
Day in and day out, the Parks have operated the store, treating it like a home away from home complete with a small kitchen, a desk, and a television in the rear corner of the store.
“We do not want to retire,” Park said after being asked about the store’s future. “We come every day, no one helps, we do it all. … People know where we are and it is nice to be in the same spot. Flint is a good city, good location for many people to come.”
Seoul Market is located at 2608 Corunna Road.