Stuck at home? Find that special international food item perfect for reliving your last big vacation at the local Nam Dae Mun Farmers Market. The grocery store has eight locations in the metro Atlanta area, including its flagship store in Duluth, which carry fresh produce and packaged food from all over the world.
Alice Kim, Nam Dae Mun’s Finance Director, has been working with the company almost her entire adult life. Her dad is Nam Dae Mun founder and CEO Yong Kim and, though Alice had planned on becoming an architect, she agreed to help him out at the store for one year after graduating from college. “That year never ended!” she jokes.
In talking to The Executive, Alice shares insight into how Nam Dae Mun has grown from a small family business to a multi-store enterprise, how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and what the future looks like for the company.
What inspired the creation of Nam Dae Mun Farmers Market in 2005?
Our founder, my father, has been in the grocery industry for over 30 years. He’s a man of food. He loves food and he wanted fresh products to be available for the local communities around us. The name of the business, Nam Dae Mun, in Korean means ‘south gate.’ In Korea there used to be four gates to secure the inner city of the capital. Near the south gate there was an open-air market with vendors selling their goods to people traveling in and out of the city. My dad wanted our business to be like the south gate of Georgia, meaning having all the grocery goods available so we could serve our community in that same way.
What makes Nam Dae Mun different from other grocery stores?
Two things. First, I think we try to have more variety than other stores; we have more international goods. Our products range from all over the world, from Asia to Africa to South America to Europe. We try to touch a little piece of home for everyone.
Another thing is that we try to buy directly from the manufacturer or distributor. We do have a lot of vendors that we partner with, but we still go to farms and try to buy directly from the packing houses so we don’t have to work through a broker. If there’s a broker involved, there are extra costs that trickle down to the end customer. In order to eliminate that, we try to go direct and find the source.
Speaking of buying direct, your family also owns an international foods import, wholesale and distribution company, CFC of Georgia, Inc. Did Nam Dae Mun have any influence on its creation?
We started the supplier business in 2009 because our stores were growing, meaning we had more locations, and we wanted to centralize our purchasing. My dad wanted to get the best prices for our customers so he decided we needed a warehouse so we could buy in bulk, sell in bulk and, therefore, sell it for less. We do also sell in bulk to other businesses, but it’s predominantly for our own procurement process.
Who shops at Nam Dae Mun?
Originally my dad was trying to target more predominantly the Asian-American market, but he saw that there were other competitors that already had those customers, so he shifted gears toward more international. A lot of our customers are local, they’re living within our community. People who are willing to try different things, they are the people that come in and are return customers. They are the kind of people who really enjoy shopping with us.
Why was Gwinnett County the best place to open Nam Dae Mun’s flagship store?
We were from Chicago originally. My dad had an opportunity to open his own business in Georgia in 2004 and, at that time, the Korean community was growing in Gwinnett County, particularly in Duluth. The cost of living in Duluth was also a lot less than it was in Chicago, California and New York, so my dad wanted to take that opportunity.
What challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The challenge is to try and keep everybody safe – from our associates to our customers. We made it a point to make sure we wore masks from the get-go to visibly show in-action that we are committed to keeping everyone safe. In late March or early April we had our associates start wearing masks because we felt it was important to keep our people safe. We began asking customers to wear them in May.
From the beginning we also installed plexiglass at the registers, made sure we’re sanitizing and reduced our hours so we could clean even more. Safety continues to be our biggest concern, just because there’s so much traffic, meaning people-flow, coming in and out. We did limit customers as well so there are less people in the store at one time.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?
I would say, it’s not what you know but who you know. It’s important to meet new people who are mentors or other business owners because you can help each other out. That could mean with extra resources, or they may have experience that I might not have, or they might have a better or more efficient method of doing things. So, it’s not always what I know, but who I know. That was a huge game-changer for me. We often think, if we do our best, that’s enough but sometimes we need to reach out to people for new perspectives because your own limitations are sometimes hard to recognize.
How has being a Chairman’s Club member helped your business?
There have been a few times when I’ve worked with other members and, while in the end we didn’t end up doing business with them, they were still willing to help and give recommendations and I think that was very admirable. Because we were members and they were members, they were willing to help look over documents or contracts with suggestions. It helped me save money because they were willing to do that.
What is your family’s vision for the future of Nam Dae Mun?
We want more locations if the opportunity comes. We want to continue to serve our communities. We want our stores to be a workplace where our associates are happy to be. Our people, our associates, are treasured. We are who we are because of our associates and we want them to be happy.