In the oriental food game the name Wing Yip looms large, if they don’t stock it then no one probably does. Nick goes to meet Albert Yip.
In 1959 a man named Woon Wing Yip came to the United Kingdom from Hong Kong with £10 in his pocket, it wasn’t much money even then. Today with an OBE and an annual business turnover of over £100 million, he can certainly say his career took off.
I’m sat with Albert Yip, son of Woon Wing Yip, in a backroom of the Wing Yip Croydon foodstore talking about the family and its rise. The store is enormous and has been here over twenty years. A Croydon boy myself I’ve been driving past its colourful pagoda entrance since what seems like forever.
My first foray into the store, back when it opened, wasn’t auspicious. Busy restaurant owners tutted and complained in their own language as I got in their way as I examined items in what was for me an Aladdin’s cave of mysterious wonders.
The others had no time to waste, though, they had to stock up and get back to the restaurant and, while I was welcome as a diner, I was clearly a pain in the backside as a shopper. The staff on the till weren’t too pleased either, the Hong Kong Chinese of the day had no time for small talk and my requests for information on what I was buying only slowed them down.
Albert laughs, he recognises that’s how it was. “Of course we still do most of our business with the restaurant trade, Sunday is still our busiest day as they restock for the week ahead. But a lot has changed in that time. Western people are really welcome in here and those that shop with us usually know what they want now, they aren’t confused. I saw a couple walking round last week with a Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook to help them identify what they needed. Her recipes are really good, by the way, they’re just like my mother’s.”
He’s also noticed the drive for authenticity. “Back in the 60s the restaurateurs weren’t too worried about that kind of thing, they would adapt the dishes to whatever the Western customers wanted, making money was more important. I think ‘Sweet n Sour’ sauce was tomato ketchup and vinegar mostly! But like Chicken Tikka Masala, fake or not, people liked it so it stayed on the menu. Whoever invented that Sweet and Sour sauce was a bit of a genius really,” he smiles.
Today anyone seeking authenticity in their Chinese cooking will find everything they need at Wing Yip. Miles of aisles of Chinese tinned and bottled goods, freezers full of good stuff, loads of chilled fresh vegetables and herbs, noodles and bean curds, there’s a meat and fish counter with live crabs and packets upon packets of spices. My own favourite purchase is Wing Yip’s own brand of Chinese curry paste, it creates the ‘authentic’ taste of a Chinese restaurant curry, a sweet and spicy mix that is all wrong but very all right with me.
“The brands we have here are the very same ones you’ll find in store cupboards in Thailand, China and Japan. The labels aren’t always easy to understand mind you!” Albert admits,”although we find more and more these days that some do have English on the packaging.”
“My father began work in ‘60s Birmingham by opening a restaurant with partners in a former tea shop in Clacton-on-Sea,” he tells me, “but he soon saw that you could buy very little produce in the UK, it was a very limited choice, I mean even the rice was basic, just packet stuff like Uncle Ben’s. So Dad started dealing with local importers to bring in proper rice and with my uncle Sammy opened a specialist Chinese grocery in Digbeth, Birmingham and it just grew.”
Which is something of an understatement, there are now four sites - Birmingham, Manchester, and two in London covering in all about 16.3 acres and employing 300 staff. The Croydon one that we’re in is soon about to be made even bigger, even so it already has a great Dim Sum restaurant on site, as well as travel agents, accountants and a print place for the restaurant owners to get all their needs met at once, such as new menus.
Albert takes me for a wander around the store, it must keep him fit doing circuits here. “Fresh coriander,” he says pointing at green bushels of the stuff. ‘You can buy it everywhere now, of course, but back in the 70s people probably wondered why their parsley smelled funny!’
“The internet of course has really fuelled experimentation,’ he muses. "You see something on Instagram, you fancy cooking it, and you come to us for the ingredients because we’ll have them. We enlarged to be Pan Asian a while back, so we sell Chinese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Indian you name it, I think we have the widest range in the UK. We’ve found new Eastern European customers, because they also have a taste for the meats we sell, the ones that used to be thrown away, because like the Chinese they know how good the offal and offcuts can be when cooked right.”’
I ask him what he likes to eat himself, apart from Chinese of course, ‘Oh, a night out for the family is Japanese or a Pho. But I do like a good American style BBQ too. We sell lots of pork ribs in the summer by the way. So you know where to come!” I actually buy some excellent XO sauce, because I love the stuff, and then set off home. Looking backwards from the door I can see Albert, a smiling and now diminishing figure in the vastness of his retail wonderland. Wing Yip can only get bigger.