When John Vuong lived in a Houston apartment in 1979 at age 17 after escaping from Vietnam, he had to walk more than a mile to the nearest grocery store.
On Monday, he and city officials ceremonially broke ground on Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods, a supermarket the Vuong family will own and operate in South Union, a section of town that is known as a food desert because it lacks a grocery store.
After working as a Gulf Coast fisherman, Vuong took over his first grocery in an underserved Houston neighborhood in 1994. Today, he has 11 stores, all of which operate under their original names, including two existing Pyburn’s.
He bought the property for the new store, at Corder and Scott, eight years ago and dreamed of one day building his first modern supermarket from the ground up.
“It’s going to be a beautiful store – the setup that I always wanted,” he said before Monday’s groundbreaking.
Vuong will invest at least $2.7 million in the project. The city granted him a $1.7 million “performance-based” loan that will be waived in full if he meets all criteria for food freshness and quality and overall cleanliness during the store’s first 10 years.
It would have been difficult for Vuong to finance the building’s construction without help from the city, Houston Housing Authority chairman Lance Gilliam said, because grocery stores, particularly those in low-income areas, have such low profit margins.
The 19,500-square-foot supermarket is expected to open early next year.
Mayor Annise Parker said during the ceremony that Houston has relatively few grocery stores per capita and an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. She said stores like Pyburn’s help by bringing healthy food to communities served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
About a quarter of Harris County residents with children lack access to healthy food, said Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Houston.
The future Pyburn’s is surrounded on two sides by apartment complexes. At the northeast corner of Corder and Scott is a “coming soon” sign with a rendering of Pyburn’s. Next to the sign is a fast-food chicken operation and within a few blocks, several boarded-up businesses.
South Union residents are more accustomed to seeing businesses leave the neighborhood than come in, said Pauline Brown, who is retired and lives in the Macgregor Palm Terrace subdivision two miles from the future store. Brown attended a June 17 meeting at Cullen Middle School in which Vuong and city officials gave details on Pyburn’s.
“For everything we need, we have to travel outside the community to get it,” she said after the meeting, recalling that the big supermarket that existed when she moved to Mcgregor Palm Terrace in 1967 had closed. “This is the beginning of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables back to the community.”
Paul Cotton, a nurse who attended the same meeting, said residents have the same desire for things like organic fruit and whole-wheat flour as people in other neighborhoods. “We just like options,” he said.
The store will carry some organic produce and have a soul food deli. The fresh meat department will have a butcher on site.
City Councilman Dwight Boykins, who represents District D and grew up in a low-income project near the future supermarket, got choked up when he spoke at the groundbreaking.
“For this man to take money out of his pocket to build this grocery store, when we only had convenience stores, it means a lot,” he said.
The property will include an additional 8,000 square feet of retail space. Boykins said businesses such as liquor stores and payday loan operations need not inquire.
Vuong’s effort to build the store came with support from Councilman Stephen Costello and other city officials, Houston-based food distributor Grocers Supply and the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, which works to bring affordable nutritious food to communities.
Laura Spanjian, director of the city’s office of sustainability, said the store will be state of the art.
“One of the benefits of building a new store is that the Vuong family will be buying new, extremely efficient equipment, lighting, HVAC, refrigerators and freezers, saving them over 30 percent on energy and water costs,” she said.