Larry Lee is the owner of Lee’s Asian Market in South Asheville.
Nathan Chesky: How did you find Asheville?
Larry Lee: We found Asheville because we came here a long time ago, in 1982. And then we ended up moving here in 2013. The shop has been here for three years.
Chesky: What countries do you have food from?
Lee: It may be easier to show you. We have this whole section from China. Some of these items are from Thailand. We have stuff from Korea as well. Back here we have stuff from the Philippines. We have Indonesian noodles. Up front here we have Japanese style. All of it. Over on the first row we have Vietnamese. All Vietnamese products. We also have Indian products near the back.
Chesky: Do you have a lot of restaurants in town shop here for their kitchens?
Lee: A lot of restaurants in Asheville do come here to buy their supplies. Not just retail. Probably more retail.
Chesky: What are the most popular items people come for?
Lee: We sell almost everything. I cannot tell you because we sell little bits of everything all the time. Oh! Tea. People are now thinking more about herbal medicine. So you can see all the teas: detox tea, cold and flu, herbal laxative, sugar free, cholesterol tea. People believe in herbal medicine. Some people come just for tea.
Chesky: I see you have a whole section of nonfood items. What all do you carry here?
Lee: We have some stuff for Buddhist people to pray to — incense from Vietnam and Thailand, some from China. We have some stuff for winter. If electricity is down we have gas, for a stove for cooking indoors. We have kitchen supplies. I sell a lot of knives. Sushi knife, woks, steamers for steam buns, hot pots, sake sets and tea sets.
Chesky: Do you import everything here yourself?
Lee: We buy through a company in California and New Jersey. I don’t want to buy from Atlanta ... they mark up too much.
Chesky: Why did you decide to open here?
Lee: We are related a bit to Asiana, the grand buffet right here. We came to visit and talk, and we felt that people here talk about where to purchase the supplies for cooking Asian style. They did have some but not a good one. So I felt that I could (succeed) ... I have been in California and knew companies in New York. That’s why I feel like maybe I could fix everyone’s needs for cooking Asian style.
Chesky: Are there things customers want that you maybe can’t bring here to Asheville?
Lee: Yes, live fish. I don’t want to do. First, my room is too small. Second, I don’t want people to have to kill them. (Laughs.)
Chesky: How long would it take to get something if I ordered something specific?
Lee: If the company in California carries it, one week. Sometimes if the company doesn’t carry it, it can take a little more. Some things we can’t even find here. Sometimes customers can find that stuff online, so I don’t feel the need to order it.
Chesky: Is there anything you can’t get here that you would want to order for yourself?
Lee: Oh, yeah. The one that I want, that I cannot get, is Chinese bakery. Like Chinese baked bread with filling. Toro, custard and red bean.
Chesky: How is business?
Lee: Sometimes up, sometimes down. I feel that there may not be enough of an Asian population here. We cannot focus on Vietnamese or just Chinese, because there may only be like 10-20 families of Chinese or Vietnamese here. If I opened a Vietnamese store, we are not surviving. Open a Chinese-only market, we are not surviving. So we must carry a little bit of everything. Here we focus a good bit on Chinese and Thai as well. There is a Thai restaurant right next door, as well as a Vietnamese restaurant.
Chesky: Have you noticed any changes in Asheville in the past few years?
Lee: Yeah, I feel more people are moving here. And we see a lot of different people. We talk to them and they are on vacation of some kind, or they move in from Florida, Ohio or something like that.
Chesky: I talked with Christina, the owner of Korean House, and she mentioned it helped when people had moved here from a bigger city, because they were more accustomed to trying different types of Asian foods. Have you noticed this?
Lee: Yes. Most people who come from big cities like Chicago, West Coast, Northern California or Oregon.
Chesky: Anything else you would want people to know about coming here?
Lee: We have some famous coffee: G7, Nestle Cafe and a lot of Chinese teas.