HOUSTON (AP) — O.G. Cooper, who is 86, rides his bike to Jim's Super grocery store in Houston's South Park neighborhood.
He'll see friends and pick up a meal, such as gumbo or oxtails at the store's soul-food deli. Since separating from his wife 25 years ago, Cooper said, Jim's "has been my backbone."
A number of area grocery stores like Jim's Super might not be around if it were not for a little-known local Vietnamese immigrant family.
John Vuong took over his first store in 1994, and his siblings, in-laws and he now operate 11 locations that are almost all in low-income, under-served areas.
With the help of a city of Houston initiative expected to launch soon, he hopes to open his first built-from-the-ground-up store next year.
It, too, would be in a low-income area, near Loop 610 South and Scott.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1bdnsPv ) reports the idea of owning a new store thrills him, he said. His existing supermarkets are like "old used cars" in constant need of repair.
Councilman Stephen Costello, who is on the city's grocery access task force, said approval of Vuong's application has not been finalized, but he is confident it will be accepted and serve as the pilot for possible future projects in the Third and Fifth Wards, the East Side, South Side and Sunnyside.
For a family living in an area designated a "food desert," where the only food source might be fast food or a convenience store, getting fresh meat, produce and other staples is a burden, especially if you have no car, said Allison Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, dedicated to bringing affordable nutritious food to more communities.
A food desert is defined as an area where there is no grocery store within a mile.
About 26 percent of Harris County residents lack access to healthy food, and the majority are in low-income areas, said Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Houston. That's slightly higher than the national average.
Local food deserts are mostly in north, south and east Houston, she said.
For Vuong, a food desert is a business opportunity.
A lot of those stores would be closed if the Vuongs hadn't bought them, said Jim Arnold, vice president of real estate and store development at Grocers Supply, the Vuong family's food distributor.
"He is the classic American entrepreneur," said Jim Nelson, Grocers Supply's senior vice president of financial services.
He came to the country with no money, then found a niche in under-served African-American and Hispanic communities, Nelson said. "He got in there and learned how to do everything himself to save money and worked 16-hour days.
"People like him are hard to find," he said. The grocery business is tough, he said, but Vuong has gotten many of his relatives involved, and his sons are excited to follow in his footsteps.
The next phase for Vuong — a bigger, modern, energy-efficient supermarket — would be the result of an effort by city officials, including Costello, and others.
Soon after he was elected to City Council in 2010, Costello attended a meeting on affordable housing in Sunnyside. He recalled, "A 75-year-old woman stood up and said she grew up there, 'and to this day I still don't have a grocery store in my neighborhood.'?"
Costello contacted the Food Trust for ideas and learned the nonprofit was already studying Houston. It released a report that year highlighting the need for more supermarkets in the city's lower-income areas and the connection between the absence of such stores and diet-related disease.
The Food Trust held meetings with city leaders, members of the supermarket industry, including Grocers Supply, and community development and children's health experts. Grocers Supply recommended Vuong as the ideal person to open a new store, Arnold said.
Vuong is asking for a little more than $1 million from the city and will invest a minimum of $2.4 million of his own money.
The cost of the initial investment would be too high for him to undertake on his own. The economics wouldn't make sense, said Lance Gilliam, a partner at WSG Real Estate Advisors who served on the task force, because grocery stores have such slim profit margins, especially those in low-income areas.
The city is reviewing Vuong's application, and Costello anticipates the city, its Housing and Community Development Department and the Houston Housing Finance Corp. will greenlight the proposal by year's end.
Vuong grew up in a poor household in Contho, Vietnam, and was 13 when Communists took over the country. He said he wished to flee the "controlling" regime. He talked it over with his family. He is the oldest of six.
Seeing other people planning an escape one day when he was 16, he made a spontaneous decision to hop on a boat with them. He didn't know where they were going, had no money and soon ached for his family, he said.
They had little food and water on the crowded boat, but the group made it to Malaysia, where Vuong stayed in a refugee camp for 13 months.
When he got to Houston in 1979, he knew no one. He took a bus to Salt Lake City, where a cousin lived, and enrolled in high school, English-language classes and, later, a technical college.
After getting laid off from a job, he came back to Texas in 1985 to join his brother Danny Vuong, a recent immigrant, as a commercial fisherman in Anahuac. He met his future wife Kheo Nguyen there.
After nine years of fishing, he felt he had saved enough money for an entrepreneurial venture. He had no idea what it might be.
In the classified section, he spotted a grocery store for sale, Bi-Rite on Houston's East Side, and he bought it.
It was scary sinking his relatives and his savings into a venture he knew nothing about, he said. Nguyen and he worked every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Six months after they took over Bi-Rite, their sales rose 20 percent. Three years later, they began buying other small supermarkets.
His strategy with the stores, he said, is to spiff them up, upgrade the meat and produce departments and strive to be more competitive with the chains. For his African-American clientele, he tweaked the soul food recipes and expanded the offerings.
Vuong and his wife own four of the 11 supermarkets, and his siblings and in-laws either own or co-own with him the other seven.
He sponsored the U.S. arrival of his parents and several of his siblings.
All of the stores operate under their original names.
Vuong is grooming his sons, Bob Vuong, 22, and David Vuong, 25, to take over his supermarkets.
"If he's there, we'll be there with him," Bob Vuong said. When they install a cooler or put in a new floor, for example, they might work until 5 a.m.
John Vuong typically works more regular hours, however, now that his sons help. In his free time he shoots pool at a Vietnamese-American pool hall and tends to his Vietnamese fruit trees and herbs in his backyard in Channelview.
Success has not changed him, he said.
"I'm kind of shy," he said. "I don't talk a whole lot. The way I live now, it's just like when we were poor."
Jim's Super, near Cullen and the South Loop, was busy on a recent weekday. Customers lined up at the deli and meat departments. Mustard greens are by far the most popular produce item, store manager Verdell Sutphen said.
One Jim's Super customer, Patranella Williams, was at the front waiting for her ride from MetroLift. She gets around in an electric wheelchair.
Once a month the senior citizens home where she lives celebrates birthdays, and she is in charge of getting the entree. She said she always winds up at Jim's because "they're crazy about the boudin!"
She likes making the trip. She has fond memories of South Park, where she grew up, and she said the staff at Jim's treats her "like a queen."
It takes her about two hours to make the boudin run for her fellow residents, but she doesn't mind.
"They're depending on me," she said.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com