Byoung and Young Min, Light My Fire / "T"
Byoung and Young Min are the proprietors of the very popular LIght My Fire hot sauce store and the T (tea) shop at The Original Farmers Market. Emigres from South Korea 30 years ago, it has not been a straight path for them to their current success. They left South Korea when Byoung got an assignment to be the Branch Manager for a large, international Korean shipping firm. Young had given up her successful soap opera acting career to marry Byoung. Barely married three years, they headed for the USA. The shipping firm failed completely during the financial meltdown of the 80's and the Mins went into the framing business. Through no fault of their own, that business went through a shattering bankruptcy that almost drove them back to Korea, but they held on. Today, they enjoy a comfortable, happy shared partnership in their two Market stores. They are the proud parents of three adult children and have two small granddaughters. We spoke with them one morning at Light My Fire.
Young: We've been at the Market since 1996. At Light My Fire, we offer more than 1,200 labels, ranging from mild to "over the top." (Editor's Note: Sometimes customers are asked to sign waivers before sampling the hottest of the hot sauces.) People come in either because they want the hot sauce experience or because they are collecting certain labels. Many of our labels are collectibles, people simply buy the labels for that. At the tea shop, we have about 250 kinds of teas, from standard teas to art flower, a tea that is brewed from the petals of a flower.
Byoung: Light My Fire opened out of necessity in the early 90's when we lost our 15 year old framing business. We were heartbroken, we thought we'd go home to South Korea, but our chidren were born here and they didn't want to leave the country. We had a difficult time and then one day it came to me, I don't know from where, that we should go into the hot sauce business. At that time, there were not many such stores around. I also figured there would not be a huge cost for the inventory, it would be something we might be able to afford. Luck was with us because I found a small space on Santa Monica Boulevard with a lot of foot traffic. I was driving by and there it was with a sign that said $600 a month in the window. I rented it as fast as I could.
Young: So we drove around to various companies in New Mexico, in the southeast, here in California, maybe 50 companies. We picked the ones we liked the best, we watched how they made their sauces, we learned everything we could about the sauces. And because we met with them face-to-face they agreed to extend credit to us after we paid for the first month of inventory. That was amazing to us that we were able to negotiate with them. But they trusted us, they knew we were going to provide their products with a terrific showcase. All of this came from Byoung's imagination, this idea of this kind of store. Sometimes, now, people come in and tell Byoung what a genius he was for thinking of it.
Byoung: But we couldn't open up right away. Because of the '94 earthquake, I knew we'd have to have the right kind of shelving. We were going to carry at least 120 labels, that's a lot of heavy bottles on a shelf. It wasn't easy to figure out, it actually took me about eight weeks to figure out how to make the shelving strong enough.
Young: No carpenter could figure out what he wanted. So finally, he realized he would have to design and make shelves himself. The result is each shelf is one long board, one that fits the length of a wall with no break. It's all about three feet wide and about six inches thick. Once we had that final challenge solved, we opened.
Byoung: And one day, about a month after we opened, this young woman comes running by the store in high heels. She looks like she's running to the art gallery a few doors down. Then she stops very suddenly and runs back to the store. She says she's doing an article for Los Angeles Times Magazine about LA's best shops and she wants to come back and write something about our store.
Young: Right after that article ran, suddenly TV crews from all the stations in LA covered the store. And from that moment on, we were successful. In fact, I think that's how the owners of the Farmers Market learned about us and came to visit. They said that we had the perfect store for the Market. We liked the idea of being in a place where there were not only locals but also tourists, we thought that would be a terrific audience for us – and it has been. We have been very happy here.
Byoung: We opened T, our tea store, in our first Light My Fire location. We moved the hot sauce store to its current larger space about seven years ago, just after The Grove opened. The T store took a while to get off the ground but after four years, it's doing very well.
Young: We've been in business together for almost 20 years. The secret to our success as a working couple is that we try to stay out of each other's way most days. Either he's at the hot sauce store and I'm at T, or vice versa. It's been good for us, we haven't made it rich, but we've put three kids through college and we live very comfortably – although our hours are very long. What's really wonderful is that we're in charge. If we want to invent a new flavor of hot sauce and have one of our suppliers make it for us, we can. We can be as creative as we want to be.
Light My Fire, Stall # 230, Phone: (323) 930-2484, www.hotsaucetogo.com.
"T" (Tea Shoppe), Stall # 212. Phone: (323) 930-0076