Dick's supermarket on Fourth Street.
Dicks Supermarket was a family grocery store that was founded and owned by Dick Yee. The first supermarket opened in 1948, and it grew to become a chain in the San Jose, California, area. At its peak, fifteen Dick's Supermarkets all over the city competed with national supermarket chains like Lucky's and Safeway. Although Chinese Americans owned and ran the business, Dick's Supermarket sold primarily American products and produce to appeal to the general public. Known for its inexpensive products, the supermarket attracted many customers. However, with time, many other national chains arrived in the San Jose area as well, and those new supermarket chains sold their goods at a low price with which Dick's Supermarket could not compete. Eventually, supermarkets in the family chain began to close, and the last Dick's Supermarket closed its doors in 2001.
This essay focuses on the first Dick's Supermarket, the flagship of the chain, and explores how the supermarket was able to survive and expand to compete with large businesses. The purpose of this essay is to outline the history of Dick's Supermarket and how it ran while answering the question: How was Dick's Supermarket on Fourth Street able to use its uniqueness as an ethnic store to survive and eventually expand to compete with other grocery store chains? Based on archival research and interviews with Dick Yee's family, this essay shows how Dick Yee used the networks that he built from working in other Chinese supermarkets to gather Chinese immigrants as low-wage workers. With the combination of low-wage labor and the strategy of buying products in bulk, Dick's Supermarket was able to maintain inexpensive prices.
THE BEGINNING OF DICK'S SUPERMARKET
Dick's Supermarket opened on August 26, 1948, on the corner of Fourth and Younger in San Jose. The building was 7,000 square feet with ten apartments on the second floor of the supermarket. (1) According to one of the owner's sons, it was the largest supermarket built during its time in Northern California, and the only business in San Jose to have its own parking lot. (2) This supermarket was ahead of its time because it was made of steel and concrete and the inside was covered in porcelain, which were new foundational materials. Furthermore, Dick's Supermarket had a bakery and a meat department that carried fresh meats and was popular with customers. (3) In the front of the supermarket, customers were able to grab breakfast and lunch at the soda fountain. (4) People would recognize the supermarket by the large pillar standing next to the building that brightly shone "Dick's Supermarket" in large neon letters.
The proud owner of Dick's Supermarket was Dick Tom Yee. Dick came to the United States with his mother in 1920 at the age of twelve to join his father, Huey Tom Yee, who was working at a grocery store in Colusa, California. Over the next few years, Dick spent his time after school helping his father at the grocery store by taking orders from people's homes and delivering the goods on his bike.
After getting into the restaurant business for a while and starting a family, Dick returned to the grocery store business in 1930 to work with his mother and brother in Vallejo, California. (5) In the following years, Dick gained the knowledge to run a grocery store and built connections in order to buy products and produce. He was able to earn enough money from the family grocery store in Vallejo to start his own grocery store in Woodland, California. (6) With the money he earned in Woodland, Dick was able to help invest and become a partner in other grocery stores around the area: Oroville, Auburn, Jackson, Stockton, Willows, Fairfield, and Yuba City.
However, Dick wanted to move out of the area. With five children, he thought his family needed more space and a new house. A new, competing grocery store across the street from his store further compelled him to move. (7) Dick also did not trust his partners within the other grocery stores in the area. When counting cash with the partners, Dick would put a gun on the table to make sure that he was not being cheated. (8) Given these factors, he believed the time had come to move on and be independent from the people he was working with in the Sacramento area.
Soon a great opportunity arose. In 1946, Dick and his family visited a relative's grocery store in Gilroy, California. On the return to Woodland, the tire of his truck went flat and he had to get it changed in San Jose. After getting his tire fixed, Dick took the opportunity to explore the city, as his second oldest son wanted to go to college in San Jose. Dick saw the farm city's potential for growth, and he became interested in a building for sale. (9) It was supposed to be a grocery store owned by the Lucky's chain, but the company had given up on the building. (10) Dick had dinner with the owner of the building and told him of his interest in purchasing the property. The following week, Dick brought cash to pay for the building. He was able to get the money so quickly because he had been saving his earnings from the grocery store in Woodland. After a handshake and exchange of money, Dick Yee was the new owner of the building. (11)
Dick paid around $500,000 to buy and build the supermarket on Fourth Street. (12) Dick used the networks he had formed from the store in Woodland to supply his supermarket in San Jose with produce, canned goods, dairy products, and other products. From these networks, Dick was able to have a direct connection to suppliers of canned goods instead of using a middleman like other grocery stores did. He had built credit and a good reputation for paying on time. (13) Dick also had a large storage space in the back of the supermarket, which further contributed to his low prices. (14) He could order large volumes of products and store them for later, when shelves needed to be restocked. With these strategies, Dick's Supermarket was able to maintain low, competitive prices.
If the cheap prices did not attract customers to Dick's Supermarket, Dick employed other strategies that would bring people into the store. The supermarket had contests where customers would spend a certain amount to get raffle tickets. Dick's nephew Lester Yee recalled that Dick's Supermarket once raffled away a car. (15) The supermarket also handed out promotional items to customers, and on one occasion Dick's Supermarket held a contest for children to create a jingle for the store. The winner won a new bicycle. (16)
Furthermore, displays in Dick's Supermarket were big attractions. For example, on November 3, 1950, a giant mince pie that had been advertised in the Mercury Herald newspaper was on display at Dick's Supermarket. (17) Lester Yee remembered how a small carnival in the parking lot, complete with a clown and cotton candy, also drew crowds. (18)
The creativity that Dick's Supermarket employed by offering different events and publicity efforts successfully enticed the customers. And, with its low prices and parking lot, customers who drove there found affordability and convenience.
DICK'S SUPERMARKET AS AN ETHNIC ENTERPRISE
As the owner of a large supermarket, Dick needed a high number of staff to help run the grocery store. Even with his immediate family working in Dick's Supermarket, there was too much to do, so Dick looked for workers. He was able to get low-wage workers from China through his previous work in Chinese grocery stores and connections from family, friends, and Chinese associations. With this advantage, Dick's Supermarket was able to compete with the different grocery store chains.
Most of the people Dick hired were Chinese immigrant men with families still in China. They all came from the same village where Dick grew up. (19) Dick's nephew Mark Yee heard that Dick owed money to people in his home village, and in order to pay them back, he either had to send money back to China or employ individuals in the United States. (20) With help from a Chinese association in San Francisco, Dick was able to bring the workers to his supermarket. Dick had also made arrangements for some family members to come and help work in the supermarket. In Woodland, Dick was able to make a connection with an immigration worker in the government by giving the immigration workers son a job in the supermarket. From that connection, Dick was able to sponsor his own family members' trips to the United States to work for him. (21)
Most of the Chinese workers lived in the supermarket since it had ten apartments on the second floor of the building, as well as several bathrooms and a kitchen. (22) The rooms were small, and up to four people crammed into each room. Dick built these rooms as part of the property because Chinese found it difficult to find a place to live in the San Jose area, as most homeowners did not want to rent to them. (23) Dick also had a cook serve meals to the workers three times a day. These apartments were another source of revenue for the supermarket, since Dick charged the residents for room and board. (24)
Through the use of the Chinese networks, Dick was able to reduce the cost of business operations by hiring workers who would accept low wages and also pay rent for housing.
CONFLICT WITH DICK'S SUPERMARKET AND THE WORKERS' UNION
Because Dick's Supermarket had a great number of workers to run the store, it was unionized by the Retail Clerks National Protective Union when it first opened. The union was strong after the Great Depression and during World War II, since more people demanded fair wages and working conditions during those times. When the union noticed the size of Dick's Supermarket in San Jose during construction, it knew that it would have a large employee base. The supermarket opened in 1948, and the union said that workers were required to be part of the union and pay union fees in order to work in Dick's Supermarket. (23)
One of the requirements of the union was that workers were only allowed to work eight hours a day for a certain wage, and if they worked more, they were paid overtime. (26) Even though the union had this rule, the Chinese workers usually worked more than eight hours a day and Dick did not pay them overtime. (27) The union did not have any Chinese representatives to help with the workers at Dick's Supermarket, and the workers knew limited English.28
Unfortunately, the Chinese workers were also not comfortable voicing their concerns to the union about issues they were having in the supermarket. It was only after years of working overtime that the Chinese contacted the union about their missing pay. The union forced Dick to pay the workers the money he owed them after years of foregoing this practice, and the unions made sure that it would not happen again by checking in periodically with the employers and employees. (29)
Around the time the union forced Dick's Supermarket to pay back wages, the union also enforced some rules regarding the living situation on the second floor of the building. The union worked out a labor contract that included room and board to restrict the number of people who could live in each room and put a limit on how much Dick's Supermarket could charge for these accommodations. With these new regulations, many of the Chinese workers had to move out and find places of their own, and Dick's Supermarket lost money from room and board. (30)
With union involvement on behalf of the workers, Dick's Supermarket began losing its advantage of low-wage workers and extra revenue, and the supermarket was forced to find another way to compete with the other grocery stores.
THE GROWTH AND DECLINE OF DICK'S SUPERMARKET
Within a few years of Dick's Supermarket's opening, more large supermarket chains set up businesses in the San Jose and Santa Clara area. With the regulations the union introduced, Dick's Supermarket no longer had the lowest prices and needed a different strategy in order to compete with the new local businesses. The strategy that Dick Yee decided to employ was to expand the one supermarket into a chain. With multiple stores, Dick's Supermarket would have greater buying power for canned goods and other products. (31) Furthermore, Dick's children were starting their own families, and they wanted larger responsibilities in the supermarket business. With the expansion of the supermarket, Dick's Supermarket would be able to compete with the other chains coming to the area, and Dick's children could be in charge of the different stores.
To expand, Dick had to sell some of his investments in the grocery store in the Sacramento area and also gain stock investors. These investors comprised mostly Dick's family members, who had the largest number of shares. This group was called Dick Yee Stores Incorporated. (32)
Throughout the 1950s, Dick expanded the supermarket into a chain, which at its peak included fifteen supermarkets and several shopping centers all around the South Bay. (33) As Lester Yee recalls, Dick's Supermarket was the largest grocery store chain in the South Bay area, having more stores than the other grocery chains combined. (34) The supermarket even started hiring non-Chinese.
However, as Dick's Supermarket was expanding, other grocery store chains also expanded in the area. Starting in the mid- and late 1960s, more grocery store chains like Alpha Beta, Ralph's, and Albertson's entered the San Jose and Santa Clara area, introducing competition against Dick's Supermarket. (35) These stores took customers away from Dick's Supermarket with their lower prices. The other grocery store chains eventually became large enough to have their own dairy farms and bakeries, while Dick's Supermarket had to pay more for these products from different distributors. (36) Also, the national grocery store chains could offer greater discount items to attract customers to their stores. Soon, Dick's Supermarket floundered. (37)
In August 1976, Dick Yee passed away and his oldest son, Gene Yee, took charge of Dick's Supermarket. (38) In 1977, Gene Yee declared Dick's Supermarket bankrupt. However, he was able to restart the supermarket business in the same year under the name Dick's Lakewood and grew three supermarkets, one of which became the Dick's Supermarket on Fourth Street. (39)
As an ethnic enterprise, Dick's Supermarket was able to employ Chinese immigrants as workers through the use of village and family networks. Many of the Chinese workers lived in the supermarket on the second floor and worked long hours for low wages. From his experiences working in other Chinese supermarkets, Dick had the connections to buy produce and products for his store affordably. Because Dick's Supermarket was very large, Dick bought the products in bulk and was able to sell them at low prices. Dick's Supermarket was able to compete with other supermarket chains because of the advantages of the Chinese networks: low-wage workers and bulk goods for the store. However, as more supermarket chains opened in San Jose and as Dick tried to expand his chain with the union's requirements, Dick's Supermarket was not able survive and was eventually forced to close.
(1.) Ben Hawkins, "Prophecy True For S.J. Merchant," San Jose Mercury, January 16, 1972.
(2.) Donald Yee, phone interview by the author, March 2, 2014.
(4.) Lester Yee, interviewed by the author, San Jose, CA, February 16, 2014.
(5.) Mark Yee, interviewed by the author, San Jose, CA, February 15, 2014.
(6.) Hawkins, "Prophecy."
(7.) Donald Yee interview.
(10.) Mark Yee interview.
(11.) Donald Yee interview.
(12.) "New Market Has Apartments For Employees," Mercury Herald, August 26, 1948.
(13.) Donald Yee interview.
(14.) Lester Yee interview.
(16.) "8-Year-Old Wins Bike With Jingle," Mercury Herald, January 5, 1950.
(17.) "Giant Mince Pie On Display Here," Mercury Herald, November 3, 1950.
(18.) Lester Yee interview.
(19.) Donald Yee interview.
(20.) Mark Yee interview.
(21.) Lester Yee interview.
(23.) Mark Yee interview.
(24.) Lester Yee interview.
(25.) Gene Yee, interviewed by Alfred Yee, San Jose, CA, March 26, 1999.
(27.) Mark Yee interview.
(30.) Gene Yee interview.
(31.) Donald Yee interview.
(32.) Gene Yee interview.
(33.) "15th Store For Dick's In Fremont," Mercury Herald, November 10, 1968.
(34.) Lester Yee interview.
(35.) Gene Yee interview.
(36.) Lester Yee interview.
(37.) Gene Yee interview.
(39.) Mark Yee interview.
Dennis Yee, "Dick's Supermarket on Fourth Street," Chinese America: History & Perspectives - The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America with UCLA Asian American Studies Center), 2014, 11-14.
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|Publication:||Chinese America: History and Perspectives|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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