At 10 a.m. on a recent Friday in the heart of Westlake, a market called Sam’s Corner is already getting a lot of traffic. The automated digital voice that greets arriving shoppers is working overtime as customers enter to grab a bag of chips, a bundle of cilantro or a few tall cans of beer. The store has been open for four hours by this time, and shop owner Andy Lee is still shaking off the cobwebs from the previous day, when he worked nearly 12 hours before returning home to a newborn baby.

“I was here 24 hours,” says his dad, Kenneth Lee, referring to decades past when he ran the store and kept it open 24/7.

Although Kenneth passed the reins to his 34-year-old son five years ago, Sam’s is still very much his baby. A first-generation Korean-American, the elder Lee opened the store in 1984, about two years after Andy was born with a severe health issue that doctors believed would require him to receive blood transfusions for the rest of his life. Concerned about cash flow, Kenneth decided to start a business and opened Sam’s, followed by two other corner stores.

One, located on Alvarado and Beverly, was destroyed in the 1992 riots, while the other, at Sixth and Rampart, was spared looting and violence after a line of neighbors showed up to protect it, Kenneth recalled through a translator.

This devotion to him isn’t too surprising, given his own deep-seated commitment to the community he serves. The retired shop owner has gone to great lengths to serve his customer base over the years, whether it was opening early to accommodate public transit commuters, introducing a butcher station or even driving to buy baby aspirin for a mother in need when Sam’s didn’t have it in stock.

Kenneth also has a long-standing zero-tolerance anti-racism policy that extends not only to employees but to the way they interact with customers. In many Korean-American–owned businesses, he said, facial expressions will immediately change when a black or Latino customer enters, but not at his shop. This sense of duty and respect seems to have been passed on to his son, who, with the help of nonprofits, local initiatives and state and federal funds, has begun serving his community in a whole new way: through increasing the quantity and quality of healthy food options at the store.

“What if the people don’t know what they want yet and you give them the options to get something different than they’re used to?” Andy Lee said.

Sam’s full name was Sam’s Corner Liquor, but the younger Lee has dropped the “liquor” from its name to give it more of a “convenience store vibe,” he said in a text. He also found that the store was lacking in items he himself wanted to purchase, such as Clif bars or fig bars.

“I kind of found that I couldn’t shop at my own store because we didn’t carry a lot of the items that I personally buy,” he said.

So Sam’s joined the Healthy Neighborhood Market program, an initiative of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council that encourages corner store owners in underserved areas to sell more fresh food options instead of soda, chips and candy. The program participants are primarily immigrant small-business owners, who are connected to industry experts and community groups to help them maintain healthier shelves.

Andy Lee installed three new produce coolers and added new signage in order to encourage customer purchases.; Credit: Hayley Fox

Andy Lee installed three new produce coolers and added new signage in order to encourage customer purchases.; Credit: Hayley Fox

Sam’s is one of the biggest store transformation projects to take place as a part of this program, and in fact Lee purchased his new produce coolers from another store in the Healthy Neighborhood Market network, said Nare Park, program associate at the L.A. Food Policy Council. These three new coolers made way for Lee to expand his selection of fruits and veggies and redesign the produce section as a whole, with better lighting, updated signage and more attractive staging.

“We had the produce before but it looked terrible,” said Lee. “Most of the time they didn’t see it as fresh, even though it was fresh.”

So far, this facelift seems to be working, he said, as produce sales have increased and he's seen some longtime regulars deviating from their standard purchase habits when they see the new coolers.

“A customer I’ve known that only buys beer … he comes in and checks it out, and he buys persimmons,” Lee said. “I’m pretty encouraged by what I’m seeing so far.”

The shop is located in the L.A. Promise Zone. Part of an Obama-era anti-poverty initiative, this zone is a designated collection of neighborhoods in the Central City area that have higher rates of poverty than the citywide average. It is because of this classification that Sam’s received USDA funding to help establish a rewards initiative that facilitates access to produce for low-income shoppers.

Open to anyone who qualifies for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka EBT, customers can apply to what’s known as the Sam’s Plus program and receive $15 to $50 extra each month to purchase fruits and veggies at the corner store.

“Essentially what it is, is adding a little bit of money to people’s monthly food budgets if they’re SNAP recipients,” explained Park, who helped Lee orchestrate many of these store improvements.

Shoppers began enrolling in Sam’s Plus last November, and after a slow start the program is full, and has a waiting list.

“I’ve seen sales just go up in general even without the Sam’s Plus participants,” said Lee. “With that program in place…the increase is at least 500 percent.”

But this initiative is just a pilot program, and come April the funding will run out. While Lee said this will undoubtedly impact sales, he’s not too concerned, he’s invested heavily — with the help of non-profit urban design firm LA Más — in cosmetic renovations.

This particular stretch of Sixth Street is densely populated and highly trafficked, with age marking many of Sam’s neighbors through dilapidated signs or peeling paint. Although Sam’s itself is more than three decades old, and hadn’t undergone any updates for the bulk of that duration, Lee is in the process of overseeing an overhaul of the business’ aesthetic that speaks to its new directive and his own personal “swag.” The phrase “Fresco. Local. Saludable” is painted outside the building, underneath an image of an avocado half that has become a bit of a logo for the business (it’s also painted on an exterior sign and inside at the checkout counter).

Two generations of Lees outside the freshly painted Sam's Corner market; Credit: Hayley Fox

Two generations of Lees outside the freshly painted Sam's Corner market; Credit: Hayley Fox

“I think you can have all the stuff that I’d want to sell…but if we don’t look like a place you would buy from, I don’t think it would be conducive to good business,” said Lee.

While the torch has been passed on day-to-day operations, the Kenneth’s influence reverberates throughout the store, from small details such as the futon still parked in the upstairs office, to big ones, like the fact that in 33 years, the shop has never been robbed. While the younger Lee had no plans to take over the family store — he graduated with a business degree from California State University Northridge and planned to start his own clothing line — he ended up working at Sam’s in large part because his dad asked him to.

Now, people expect him to run the same type of community-centric operation his father has, and while Lee doesn’t know if he can afford to host his dad’s signature Thanksgiving block party for hundreds of local residents, he’s trying to do his part.

Kenneth has a governing proverb he calls the “Bowl Theory.”

When you have an empty bowl and fill it with water, that water is good for a while but will eventually stagnate if it’s not moved. So you must transfer some of your water — aka share your knowledge, wealth or assistance — into others’ bowls. This service helps your community flourish while also making room for your own personal growth.

“So I can always have good water [and] my neighbors can always have good water,” Lee said.

Sam's is located at 2001 W. Sixth St.

LA Weekly