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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The last of a dying breed? The last of a dying breed? (November 24, 2004)

S.O.S. store one of Palo Alto's few remaining mom-and-pop groceries

by Tony Burchyns

Commuting to work is easy when you're the "mom" and "pop" of a mom-and-pop store.

About 20 steps take James and Mary Wang from their snug bungalow to the old-world store in front of it, S.O.S. Fine Foods on Emerson Street near Addison Avenue.

James makes the trip seven days a week at 7 a.m. He opens the back door of the store, flicks on the lights, starts the coffee and steps outside to sweep the sidewalk. At 7:30 a.m., he opens the front door for 12 hours of business.

"It's very hard to work here," he said. "We don't have enough money to hire anybody."

Vacations are few and far between for the Wangs, but their two grown children sometimes stop by to lend a hand, Mary said.

"Our daughter works in a biotech lab. She looks at us like we work too hard," she said.

To keep things running, the Wangs visit wholesalers themselves to buy goods for the tiny neighborhood store. Vegetables are too hard to keep, James said, because customers have thinned out over the years.

Harry Wong, 72, of Ramona Street remembers when S.O.S. Fine Foods was more than a simple convenience store. It used to offer fresh meats and produce, he said.

"Years ago, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, that used to be a pretty popular market," Wong said. "It was frequented by people all around the neighborhood. Town and Country (Village) was in its infancy, and there weren't many markets in Palo Alto. Those mom-and-pop stores like that -- they're a dying breed."

James said the store has been in Palo Alto since the 1920s. Now the shelves hold the standard convenience store fare: bags of charcoal, liquid plumbing agents, detergents, crackers, cereal, cookies, candy, chips, rubber gloves, toiletries, and several other odds and ends.

Next to the cash register and a pile of Chinese newspaper lies a small deli counter that functions as the source of some of Palo Alto's cheapest sandwiches -- all under $4.

"Everyone knows about the low prices," James said with pride, adding that gallons of milk cost $3. "People from Whole Foods come by."

Refrigerators, one of them assembled by the Wangs themselves to save energy, line the walls, stocked with commercial beverages, frozen dinners and six-packs of beer.

From the outside the store looks like something from a bygone era, save for the neon signs in the tiny black windows. A hand-painted sign carries the store's name, and a row of telltale newspaper racks provides an extra hint that this little white slab of a building is indeed a convenience store.

Overall, the most striking feature of S.O.S. Fine Foods is its size, or lack thereof. One is reminded of a Joan Didion quip: If the place were any smaller, it would be adultery.

But 80 years ago Palo Altans were rural folk. Lavish founts of sustenance such as Safeway, Albertsons and Whole Foods would have been deemed preposterous. Now this old corner store seems like an anomaly in a town increasingly susceptible to chain dominance.

Profits at S.O.S. Fine Foods don't match University Avenue standards, where big chains set the bar, but the Wangs share a certain neighborly bond with their customers that can't be figured on a calculator. And most importantly, their landlord, longtime Palo Alto real-estate man Joseph Yarkin, backs the store from tip to toe.

"He knows the business is very hard, so he's very nice to us," James said with a smile. "We make a minimal profit."

Yarkin, now retired, said he likes the Wangs' style of business and wouldn't change a thing.

"I'm delighted that they're there, and there's a need for them. I don't know what will happen after this generation," said Yarkin, who bought the property in the 1960s.

Neither do the Wang's, but they're not thinking about that just yet.

The Wangs' son, Peter, graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1998 and used to work at the store after school and on weekends.

"I don't really know what the future holds for the store," said Peter, now a student at San Francisco State University. "Business has gone down a lot, since many of the auto shops left, and so many places were torn down, and also with the medical foundation moving to El Camino (Real)."

Yarkin, however, remains optimistic for the little store he's owned so long. Large residential units are rising a block away on Ramona Street that could bring new customers.

"People will go to Whole Foods, but there will be a small sprinkling of people who will go to S.O.S.," Yarkin said. "It's special in a sort of way. It's not a chain, it's a neighborhood store -- people like it."

The Wangs themselves have traveled a long road to get where they are today.

Originally from China, the Wangs pursued business opportunities with Mary's father, Peter Tsung, and others in Nicaragua until the revolution of 1979 forced them to flee. Tsung came to Palo Alto in 1979 while the Wangs moved to Houston to open two Chinese restaurants. Tsung, who was running S.O.S. at the time, persuaded the Wangs to follow him to California in the early 1990s.

Lately, the Wang's have benefited from a surge of business from orange-helmeted construction workers revitalizing the area.

Rebecca Wedl of Addison Avenue said she and her husband saw the market as a definite plus when they moved into the neighborhood six months ago.

"We try to support it -- they're very nice," she said, adding that she fears time may soon catch up to the old-fashioned business.

Mary Valencia works across the street at Kurt and Dorn's Auto Service and buys sandwiches from S.O.S. Fine Foods. She said the Wangs' courteous service stands out in a franchise-deli world.

"They're dedicated, and very quick, and the food is good," she said. "Some places you go, you have to wait for them to wake up before they can make your sandwich."

Marlon Payne grew up nearby and remembered visiting the hole-in-the-wall store in the 1980s on his way to Paly.

"I've been coming since I was a freshman," he said. "I used to stop here with friends to get donuts."

Hurrying home with a new bottle of bleach under his arm, Payne said the cozy store still carries everything he needs within walking distance of his house.

And so an unlikely bit of Palo Alto history lives on - for the moment - thanks to Ma and Pa Wang.

Tony Burchyns can be e-mailed at tburchyns@paweekly.com.


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