CAM International owner Jay Yang just wanted to find the vegetables he knew from his native Shanghai, China.
As a young engineer at Honda of America during the 1990s, Jay Yang was feeling confident. He was earning a decent salary and had successfully led a number of projects. He was driving a company car, had bought a house, was starting a family and was putting something away for the future.
That’s when he turned his attention to another project.
The native of Shanghai, China, had been in Ohio for almost a decade, earning a degree at Wright State University in Dayton before moving to Central Ohio. And in all that time, he found it difficult to find the foods he grew up on back home.
“I went to the supermarket when I came here. I thought, ‘What? I can’t find anything!’ You didn’t even see that many choices of pork at Kroger. You saw sausages or barbecue.” Columbus had a few Asian markets near the Ohio State University campus, but Yang found their inventory limited as well, catering largely to the traditions and tastes of Taiwan and Hong Kong.Stay up to date with the region’s thriving business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
That’s when he traded in his engineering career and opened Columbus Asia Market, a supermarket-sized store offering Asian produce and packaged goods, meat and seafood that caught the leading edges of two waves: a doubling of Central Ohio’s Asian-American population and the general population’s growing taste for foods from around the world.
From its 1997 start in an 8,000-square-foot space on Bethel Road—four times bigger than other Asian groceries doing business in Columbus at the time—CAM has expanded steadily. Yang opened a store in Cincinnati in 2002 and a Cleveland shop in 2005. In 2018, he moved the Columbus store from its 20,000-square-foot space in a former Big Bear supermarket on Bethel Road to 30,000 square feet off I-270 on Park Mill Run Drive in Hilliard.
“I saw the existing markets couldn’t provide the services people wanted,” Yang says of the opportunity he sensed more than 20 years ago. “I thought, why can’t an Asian grocery store do a better job, have a bright, spacious place? I thought I could bring that concept. I felt we needed a market and I could get it done.”
While Asian staples such as bok choy and sriracha have worked their way into U.S. grocery chains, CAM is stocked with items that still aren’t widely available, from Korean gochujang to Philippine bagoong. The shelves reflect the diversity of Asian-Americans in Central Ohio—home to more than 40 percent of Ohioans of Asian descent—but also draw non-Asian clientele interested in trying something new.
Jen Zhang has relied on CAM for fresh fish, rice balls, dumplings, wonton and other items since she first moved to Columbus in 2002. When she taught at a Chinese school in Central Ohio, she would buy traditional Chinese New Year candies and gifts for her pupils that she couldn’t find in other stores. “It was the first grocery store we went to in Columbus, and it was so exciting,” she recalls.
Yang still takes a hands-on approach to running the stores, although he’s not performing all the tasks he took on during the early days. Back then, he was still working at Honda, where his days would begin at 7:30 a.m. and last, as is Japanese custom, until the bosses called it a day.
“I probably worked nine hours over there, jumped into my car, drove all the way to the market, worked sometimes until 10, sometimes until 11,” he recalls. “I did everything. There were a couple of farmers who raised tilapia. After work [at Honda], I drove my van a couple hours west to buy a hundred pounds of live tilapia in a big tank. I’d cover it and drive a couple hours back to the market to sell.”
Despite a first three months in business that he describes as “really scary,” Yang quit his job at Honda to work full-time at the fledgling market. “I had to. I put everything in there. I pulled out my pension money. I got a loan on my house. It was a big risk.”
By word of mouth, it paid off. CAM’s three stores now employ 85 people. Yang estimates 2019 sales at $6 million.
Today, CAM faces competition from Indianapolis-based Saraga International Grocery, which opened a second Columbus store in 2019, and Cleveland-based Park to Shop, which has one store in Northwest Columbus.
Although Yang shrugs it off—“my philosophy is, I tried to make a big pie”—his new location in Hilliard is part of what he calls the Asian Center. The market is connected to space for about-to-open dim sum and hot-pot restaurants, a Korean barbecue and other businesses. They surround a wide-open atrium that already has hosted a Chinese New Year celebration, an art exhibition, a ping pong tournament and movies for seniors.
“We grew from a market to a whole product trying to provide a whole spectrum of services,” he says. “There are a lot of good things in our cultures. We want to serve not only the Asian community but everyone.”
Bob Vitale is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.