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Let’s Eat: A labour of love (9 photos)

A local grocery store owner channels her passion for cooking.

If you’ve been to Asian Grocery Store Golden Flower the past year, you might have noticed an increasing assortment of prepared foods.

Owner Paw Nay Htoo started making and selling frozen, ready-to-cook items such as spring rolls and shumai (steamed dumplings) as a way to make money doing what she loves most, cooking.

The grocery business is tough, Htoo says. Profit margins are slim, and finding suppliers for the various ethnic foods that she carries is a huge challenge. When she started Golden Flower in August 2016, she carried Thai and Vietnamese foods, but has since expanded to Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Japanese foods, and even food from the African continent.

Keeping prices low is very important to Htoo, but most of the food is imported and expensive to start with. There’s also pressure from big box stores like Walmart carrying more ethnic food, so Htoo decided to diversify by making and selling prepared foods.

Her freezers are stocked with a variety of wontons, shumai, spring rolls and egg rolls. In the cooler, there are prepared meals and kimchi. Over the past year, she has tried a variety of ready-to-heat meals, from beef curry to stir fries. Lately, BBQ chicken and BBQ pork, served with sticky Thai rice, has proven popular, and she makes a batch every week on Wednesdays.

Although COVID has kept some international students away, there are still some here, and business has been steady, Htoo says. Students like her prepared meals, finding them affordable and delicious. Some even buy three or four every week, she says.

Htoo is no stranger to the kitchen - she co-owned Salween Restaurant before she started Golden Flower. She can’t even remember when she started cooking. “My mom doesn’t cook, but my dad loves cooking, and my five brothers all love cooking. We just love to spend time in the kitchen,” she recalls.

For a proficient home cook, starting a restaurant seemed like a good idea, but it was a very steep learning curve for Htoo, who had no prior business experience. She eventually stepped back from Salween, finding life as a restaurant-owner incompatible with raising a young family.

“I had to take a step back and look at what I did, see what happened, and why,” she says. “Now I realize Salween gave me a lot of lessons, a lot of experience for starting a business. I can use that for Golden Flower.”

The stressful experience in the food industry didn’t put a dent in her love for cooking. “Even now, I spend most of my time in the kitchen. I barely go to the living room. At home, it’s either the kitchen or bedroom,” she laughs.

Preparing all these frozen goodies and meals for the store takes a lot of time, but it’s a labour of love for her. “It would be tiring if I didn’t have passion for cooking. But I don’t feel like this is a job. I get up early in the morning and I’m happy to cook,” she says.

Most of what she makes and sells are things she loves herself, and subsequently developed recipes for. She says she fell in love with kimchi years ago when she first came here and worked at a Korean restaurant. She observed the owner’s mother making kimchi, and started experimenting at home. “My husband hates kimchi, nobody in my family eats it. But I love it, I love the smell, the taste,” she says. She is proud to offer locally-made kimchi, made with no MSG.

“In the future, if I have a bigger space, maybe one side of the store can be for grocery, and the other side for takeout,” Htoo says. “I’d love to make noodle soup. Right now, there is no space, no budget. But I’m practicing my skills, my recipes. So when the time comes, I will be ready,” she says hopefully.

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