Superior’s CEO immigrated from South Korea with early designs on a different path
Mimi Song, founder and CEO of Superior Grocers, has been selected for the Food Industry Hall of Fame. In recent interviews with Bob Reeves, EVP of Shelby Publishing, which were compiled by Shelby’s Mary Margaret Stewart, Song recalled her rise to CEO of a successful grocery chain.
Mimi Song immigrated with her family to Southern California from South Korea in 1977 at age 20. On a wet winter morning shortly after her arrival, she had an epiphany of sorts while walking to her job as cashier at a Korean market.
“It was probably January or February, and I woke up and it was raining outside,” Song recalled. “And, of course, we didn’t have an umbrella. We brought a lot of things, but nobody really thought about the umbrella…so I have to walk about 30 minutes and…it was pretty chilly. When I arrived at the market, I was really soaking wet.
“I had no choice but to go to the bathroom, using the paper towels to dry my hair and things. And then when I looked at myself, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I look like I’m a small, tiny mouse just coming out of the water,’ because I’m not a very big person. And I remember that day – I really do.”
This had not been Song’s vision of the American Dream.
“That’s not the country I came here for,” she recalled. “I came here for the really nice life…after the shift, I had to walk back again…the first time I ever learned…this is when you are poor.
“That’s when I learned about money. I said, I never want to walk in the rain. That’s what really made me realize, I have to make money. Otherwise, I will live forever like that.”
In Korea, things had been different. Song’s father was a teacher and her mother was a housewife, raising Mimi and her two younger siblings, Marie and Danny. When they moved, they were permitted to take only $1,000 per person out of Korea. The money went quickly and, as the eldest, Song went to work.
“My father was already 50 years old when he came to this country. He didn’t speak English, and he couldn’t be a teacher here,” Song said. “He did all kinds of things in order to support the family – he did mostly labor work.”
Song’s dream was to become a fashion designer – something that, to this day, doesn’t surprise people. Colleagues and friends describe her as well-dressed, fashionable and classy.
“When I came here, I went to L.A. Technical College. There was a fashion class…I tried,” she said.
After some time, she learned that school was demanding, both in terms of money and time. She worked two part-time jobs while taking classes. Approached by James Oh to open a grocery store, she and her sister, Marie, decided to take a leap of faith. In March 1981, the Songs and Oh started Frontier Food, which later became known as Superior Grocers.
“I couldn’t go to school anymore because I either became a fashion designer or I wanted to be a grocer. And this is more important to me because I actually had to start living,” she said. “I needed income for my life…I had no experience in the grocery business. I had to learn, so I had to stop school.
“It was not some strategic plan or anything. I just wanted to have a chance…if I wanted to continue working a part-time job for somebody else, my life will be always the same. So I decided that I had nothing to lose.”
Frontier Food started as a general supermarket. The first location was in Covina, California, with a 70 percent Caucasian customer base. It was the only location available.
“When we opened up the store, Marie, me and Mr. Oh basically had to do everything. I had to do the training of the cashiers, write the ad, meet the salesperson. Marie was always finance – she did all the bookkeeping.”
And they worked as hard as needed to survive.
“I remember Marie had to go to the bank maybe three times a day…she would have to go every few hours,” Song said. “She would collect all the money and go to deposit it. We survived for a few months, but actually, our business became pretty strong because we really started to focus on produce and meat. Volume-wise, we did over $300,000 a week at that location in 1981. It was really, really good.”
Early on, they worked seven days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day. And Song waffled on her decision to get into the grocery business. But Oh, who was the company’s’ chairman, convinced her to stay.
“He asked, ‘Why do you want to be a fashion designer?’ And I said, ‘Because I like clothes…I want to wear a lot of beautiful clothes myself.’ So I didn’t really have a good concept for how I was going to be a fashion designer. The only thing I was thinking was, I can dress myself in whatever I like to wear.
“He said, ‘If you became a fashion designer, that doesn’t mean you’re going to wear all the nice dresses because you’re always working – that’s going to be your job. If you want to wear the beautiful fashion, you need the money. So this job is great if you find success.’”
Decades later, she’s stuck with it, changing the business as needed. After about a year in Covina, they faced trouble with the landlord.
“We had a lack of knowledge. We didn’t really know much about the lease conditions and terms,” Song recalled.
The trio moved their store concept from Covina to South Central Los Angeles, where Song had noticed several successful mom-and-pop stores. There was a large Hispanic population, and she realized they could capitalize on a specialty grocery concept, marketing to that demographic – a concept which became today’s Superior Grocers.
They started to specialize their offering, adding tortillerías, panaderías and carnicerías. And they began to hire people within the community.
“I would go to small shops. I said to them, ‘How much money are you making? I’ll pay you ‘X’ more money. Would you want to come?’” she said. “We hired a tortilla expert. I had no idea how to make the tortillas, so he was the one who actually helped me. There were many people who helped me run the tortilla department, the panadería, and then especially the meat department. They knew how to cut the thin meat.
“I had no idea about the pig feet, the chicken feet – those things that people really love to eat.”
And while a South Korean native who runs a Hispanic grocery company, learning the food business was new for her either way. She just capitalized on the need she saw in the South Central community.
“I never had previous grocery experience. I was just thinking how to serve and learn the Hispanic community and culture,” she said. “But honestly, people are people. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, African-American, Asian or Hispanic.”
And clearly, the vision worked. Today, Superior Grocers operates 47 stores and counting. But it all comes back to Song’s ambition. Why did she decide to take on grocery? To win.
“I want to be a winner…and I want to do the very best,” she said. “Not because I want recognition from other people, but because of just my own things. I said, I can do better.
“My mom was a great woman and great mom. She would never say, ‘You can’t.’ She would always say, ‘I know you can do it’…she always encouraged me.
“We had a lot of hard times. Today, it looks like a great success. But the last 40 years, there were many days that we felt like we didn’t want to wake up the next day…my dad always told us…God only gives us challenges you can come overcome. And once you overcome, you’ll be better, and God will give you another challenge.”
And Song is not one to shy away from a challenge.
“One thing I know, every day that I’m getting challenged…I need to overcome. I’m going to be better,” she said. “I think that’s why my teams think, ‘Nice lady.’ They think I’m strong and never give up.
“I want to make Superior a great success…I’d really like to be – and this company wants to be – a good employer. That’s our vision for Superior’s future.
“Marie and I always try to show our appreciation to the Superior team because we know – two immigrant girls who started this business in their 20s and have been doing business 40 years – we couldn’t do it without these people.”
Song said her sister doesn’t come across as a traditional grocery industry woman.
“Marie always smiles, and she’s softer,” she said. “People, when the company was smaller, if they were afraid of me, they came to Marie…we have some balance together.”
Marie Song agreed.
“I love listening, but I love to talk to people on a one-to-one basis,” she said. “You have to find their potential. That’s important. And it makes them strong.”
In her free time, Mimi Song enjoys the arts. And doesn’t forget travel.
“I’ve been to almost every place in the world…I love to check out the grocery stores. I even went to the smallest store in the Arctic,” she said. “I haven’t been much to Eastern Europe. That was my plan in 2020 – traveling more. And then coronavirus came.
“I also love to meet friends, spend time with family and explore new restaurants and museums.”