Church Fruit Farm
Owner: Hye Kyung Kang
Opened: 2001 under current ownership
Location: 1824 Church Ave, Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY
Photographed: May 2019
Flatbush is, and has been even more in the past, a largely African American neighborhood. In this section of Flatbush, while the other segment of the population has changed, the African American segment has remained. And in the years before many of the chain supermarkets were willing to cater to Caribbean immigrant populations, a new group was just entering the grocery retail industry: Korean-American immigrants, some of whom migrated to Latin America before coming to the US. Seeing a huge unfilled market gap, they set up greengrocer shops and grocery stores in predominantly African American neighborhoods catering to the Caribbean populations.
These stores, however, were not always well received. The cultures of the two groups were very different, and a mutual lack of understanding caused frequent friction between Koreans and African Americans, with the mainly Hispanic employees of the stores caught in the middle. This friction culminated in a well-known altercation in 1988 in Flatbush. Accounts vary, but the most common one is that a Korean manager at the Family Red Apple greengrocer shop aggressively approached a female black customer who was leaving the store, and he believed she hadn't paid. The manager did not speak English, and attempted to communicate to the customer that she owed him money. In this account, after failing to communicate this, the manager hit the customer, causing a larger fight and a weeks-long, community-wide boycott of Family Red Apple. (Other accounts claim that the customer simply couldn't understand the manager and hit him first; or that she simply faked being hit to cause a scene.)
In my opinion, it doesn't really matter which variation actually happened. Tensions between the Korean-American and African American communities in New York City had been present since the two first interacted, and something similar was bound to happen sooner or later anyway. The fight grew ugly on both sides, frequently generalizing and reverting to racist stereotypes about both groups. New York City mayor at the time Ed Koch failed to step in when both groups, which had formally organized, asked him to. The boycott strayed from its original intent, having been initially aimed at that store and its management, to being hijacked by more aggressive groups for a larger purpose. Many black residents of the neighborhood pointed out as the movement changed that they had no problem with Korean immigrants or even Korean-owned grocery stores, as they enthusiastically patronized another Korean-owned greengrocer directly across the street, and sought to distance themselves from the growing boycott and protest.
The situation was resolved only in the vaguest of terms, and only finally came to an end when Family Red Apple was sold in 1989 to Mun Kwan Cha, another Korean immigrant who already owned grocery stores in Flatbush. The store operated on cordial terms with the neighborhood for the following 11 years, until it was sold again in 2001 to its current owner, Hye Kyung Kang, who is also a Korean immigrant. Cha continues to own and operate at least two other popular grocery stores, which we'll see later in our trip. Today, the former Family Red Apple does business as the Church Fruit Farm, while the other greengrocer across the street continues to operate as the Great Vegetable Farm. Once allies, the stores now compete aggressively on prices.
While it's not exactly a happy ending, I can tell you that this store and Great Vegetable Farm both are heavily patronized by a diverse group of customers. Plus, as different people move into the neighborhood and the customer base changes, the Family Red Apple boycott has been all but buried in the depths of the collective Flatbush memory.
Enough history! Today, Church Fruit Farm is a tightly packed, crowded space with some of the freshest produce you're going to find. The turnover is enormous and everything looks to be top quality.
The store also sells a variety of basic grocery items, dairy, frozen foods, and a lot of Caribbean items.
It's neither a supermarket nor a convenience store nor a bodega. It's something else entirely.
Curry powder! And the side wall of the store, where the registers are, is stacked high with health and beauty goods, spices, snacks, and teas.
Side note, if you'd like to read up more on the Family Red Apple boycott and the relations between the African American and Korean-American communities in Brooklyn through the lens of the food industry, both Ethnic Solidarity for Economic Survival by Pyong Gap Min and Bitter Fruit by Claire Jean Kim are excellent. While both are Korean-American scholars, Min's book is nearly entirely from the Korean-American perspective while Kim tends to lean more sympathetic to the African American perspective. Both, however, are well worth the read. Tomorrow we'll cross the street to see the Great Vegetable Farm!