Like many Asian immigrants living in Canada, the food that she grew up with is a mainstay of Paw Nay Htoo’s life. Every time the family travelled to Winnipeg or St.Paul, MN., they would trawl Asian grocery stores and haul home as much food as they could. “It was getting tiresome,” she explained. She knew other people who made similar road trips to get their hands on ingredients not available in Thunder Bay and thought it would do everyone a service if she opened a store to bring in those things.
Htoo’s first business venture was actually a restaurant - Salween, which serves up Burmese and Thai cuisine. While the restaurant was popular, Htoo found operating a restaurant too time-consuming for her young family. “My son was diagnosed with ADHD and having difficulties at school, but in the restaurant, I was working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., because we could not afford to hire people yet. I realized it was not a good choice for my family.” She eventually handed over the restaurant to her business partner to focus on her family.
Her new business, which she started in August 2016, allows her to take better care of her family, she says. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and she has a space set aside in the back for her kids to do their homework after school, which was something she couldn’t do in a restaurant. Business isn’t exactly easy, but the store provides her with a better work-life balance.
Htoo’s family is originally from Burma, but they became refugees during the internal conflict and she was born across the border in Thailand. When she was six or seven, the family relocated to Thailand, where she grew up. In 2004, she and her husband decided to immigrate to Canada, settling in Thunder Bay where her husband had relatives living already. At first, she found it difficult to get through the long winters and finding a job was challenging. She wanted to move to a bigger city, but she changed her mind when her son was born. “This is the city that we want to raise our family in. I’m really in love with Thunder Bay now.”
When she started Golden Flower, Htoo did not know much about what Asian foodstuffs people in the area needed. She started small, first stocking Thai condiments and ingredients she couldn’t find in Thunder Bay. “But it turned out, nobody wanted those things.” After a while, she got to know more people from different parts of Asia and asked them what they want. She started stocking items from China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. She now carries a wide variety of Asian greens, mushrooms, herbs, Korean kimchi and fishcakes, Japanese yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) and natto (fermented soy beans), a large selection of frozen seafood and meat, and snacks and condiments from all over Southeast and East Asia.
One of the most challenging aspects of operating an Asian grocery store in Thunder Bay has been finding suppliers willing to work with such a small buyer, she said. Because Thunder Bay is so far away from big metropolises such as Toronto or Ottawa where there are large immigrant populations, shipping can be very expensive, and she cannot order larger amounts to offset the cost. “The first year I lost money,” she admitted. Unwilling to charge her customers more than what they feel is fair, she has short-changed herself a few times. That said, she has found some good suppliers willing to work with her and she is always happy to look for a particular item a customer needs. She recently managed to bring in several kinds of frozen ramen noodles made by Sun Noodle, the Hawaiian company that supplies noodles to many, if not most of the top ramen restaurants in North America. It took a year of asking around different suppliers, but she eventually found them and sold most of her first batch within days.
“If you need anything, please send me a photo and description,” Htoo says. “I will try my best to find it and I will keep looking until I can get it.”