Venerable NYC institution Pearl River Mart is expanding within Chelsea Market this week with the addition of Pearl River Mart Foods, a new food mart located in the market’s grocery-focused basement level. The move marks the nearly 50-year-old Asian goods emporium’s first leap into opening a food-focused store.
For this launch, president Joanne Kwong — the second-generation family owner of Pearl River Mart — is balancing the established legacy that Pearl River Mart, known as the world’s first Chinese-American department store, holds in NYC, while also using that heft to propel forward the next generation of Asian food brands and businesses making their own mark on the city.
To that end, Pearl River Mart Foods will be the first grocery store in NYC to sell speciality items like chili oils and sauces from the city’s cool-kid Asian restaurants like Taiwanese hotspot 886 and critically-acclaimed Sichuan dry pot specialists MáLà Project. There’s also three up-and-coming food vendors situated in an expansive kitchen space within the food mart selling baos, kimbap, and bubble tea to customers.
“It really just feels like friends sharing the things that they’ve created,” Kwong says. “And my part of it is kind of bringing it all together.”
For the three vendors taking up residence inside Pearl River Mart Foods, it’s the first time that each of the owners have opened locations in Manhattan. Nelson Lee and Eddie Mao of popular bao pop-up Mao’s Bao, a regular on the Smorgasburg food festival circuit, are selling their colorful sheng jian bao, a juicy, pan-fried cousin to xiao long bao, stuffed with tender meat (and Impossible meat) fillings. Sarah Lee’s Korean comfort food staple Kimbap Lab, which got its start inside Williamsburg’s Whole Foods, will be selling seaweed-wrapped, gluten-free rolls stuffed with marinated meats, tofu, and fresh vegetables. The Astoria-based bubble tea experts at Tea and Milk round out the shop’s made-to-order food offerings.
Next to the vendors, the shelves of Pearl River Mart Foods are lined with oils, sauces, seasonings, frozen dumplings, baked goods, and cookbooks from crowd-favorite Asian restaurants in NYC, including Nom Wah, 886, MáLà Project, Fong On, Philippine Bread House, and Junzi.
For the majority of these restaurants, the partnership with Pearl River Mart marks the first time that they’ve wholesaled their goods to an outside shop. 886 owner Eric Sze says that he’s been considering wholesaling the restaurant’s popular Sze Daddy chili oil for a while, but only found the right fit with Kwong’s new venture. “We wanted a presence that could really speak to the heritage of what we are at 886 and what the chili oil is to us,” Sze says. “Pearl River Mart checks all the boxes for us and plus, Joanne is an awesome person.”
Junzi CEO Yong Zhao echoed the sentiments when considering whether to sell Junzi’s jars of spicy chili oil at the new shop. “Pearl River Mart is a legacy of Chinatown and Chinese American culture,” Zhao says. “Joanne and her team also embody the perfect example of ‘junzi.’ To always be an exemplary member of our community, ready to lift and support those around them. That’s why we always feel we are allies, both in terms of culture and business.”
Pearl River Mart was founded in Chinatown in 1971 by Kwong’s mother- and father-in-law, Ching Yeh and Ming Yi Chen, while direct trade was forbidden between China and America. The Chens initially smuggled goods into New York through Canada to stock the department store with products that would resonate with both Chinese-Americans looking for a piece of home and others who may be experiencing Chinese culture for the first time. The sprawling shop is now known as a go-to place to find a little bit of everything, from cookware, dishes, and home decor to clothing, books, and children’s toys.
“The thinking was that, as neighbors in New York City, with a lot of immigrants from all different places, if they just got to know each other at this place that they called a friendship store, they would see each other face-to-face,” Kwong says. “And it would be hard to discriminate against somebody when admiring their culture and admiring their goods and actually taking a piece of it home.”
Now, Kwong aims to carry on that legacy at Pearl River Mart Foods. The shop balances traditional offerings that some Asian customers will be looking for, while also showcasing new goods from the next wave of Asian-American entrepreneurs coming up in the city.
“We’re no longer introducing New York to Chinese culture,” Kwong says. “But what we’re doing is, again, providing a space for these communities.”
Aside from the new food shop, Pearl River Mart continues to operate upstairs at its other Chelsea Market location, as well as its flagship at the corner of Tribeca and Chinatown. The location inside the Museum of Chinese in America remains temporarily closed due to economic hardship from the pandemic.
Pearl River Mart Foods is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Customers may reserve shopping times for the shop’s opening weekend here.