Meet the immigrant-owned businesses coming back from the brink on Lake Street

Highland Plaza is home to several immigrant-owned businesses, all of whom plan to reopen.

Meet the immigrant-owned businesses coming back from the brink on Lake Street
1st. Av. S.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Former
Office Depot
location
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
Lake St.
35W
.
1
E. 31st St.
Dollar
Tree
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
2
3
A
V
Cost Cutters
4
5
Former Sprint location
Nicollet Av.
Gas station
canopy
6
Best Wash Laundromat
7
Los Hornos del Rey
8
A to Z
Gas Stop
Variety Beauty
9
Unoccupied space
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
10
11
Former
Payless Shoes
location
Subway
Car wash
E. 31st St.
Unoccupied space
Lake St.
Former
Office Depot
location
Parking
areas
1
Dollar
Tree
2
3
Cost Cutters
Former Sprint location
4
Best Wash Laundromat
5
Los Hornos del Rey
6
Variety Beauty
7
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
Subway
8
Former
Payless Shoes
location
10
11
9
Nicollet Av.
1st. Av. S.
A to Z
Gas Stop
E. 31st St.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
35W
.
E. 31st St.
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
A
V

1. Office Depot

Owner: The ODP Corp., based in Boca Raton, Fla.

Though the company has several years left on its lease, Office Depot decided not to rebuild its store at Highland Plaza. Shopping center owner Tom Roberts said he believes the company is afraid the store could be damaged again by another wave of rioting. The company declined to comment. Walgreens has tentatively agreed to take over a big chunk of the space.

2. Dollar Tree

Owner: Dollar Tree Inc., based in Chesapeake, Va.

Dollar Tree is the largest remaining tenant at Highland Plaza. Another retailer is buying the shopping center that houses Dollar Tree's store at 4626 Nicollet Ave., so the company will be transferring those employees to the Highland Plaza store in January. Owner Tom Roberts could have opened a handful of shops sooner, but he focused his rebuilding team on Dollar Tree, believing the company will help bring significant traffic to the center. Altogether, more than 100 of the company's stores — including the Family Dollar chain — were affected by the riots nationally, costing $17 million in store damages, repairs and lost inventory, according to a company spokesperson.

3. Cost Cutters

Owner: Robert Ha
Country of origin: Vietnam

When Robert Ha arrived in America in the early 1990s, his English was limited, recalled his daughter, Jenny Nguyen. "Cutting hair doesn't require a lot of communication, so he figured that was the best job for him," she said. Her father, now 65, asked her to take over the store last year so he could spend more time in Vietnam. She agreed, even though she had sold her own salon after deciding she didn't want to cut hair anymore. "I was hoping to keep it open so when he comes back to America, he can work here part-time," Nguyen said. "He really likes being a barber."

Besides dealing with insurance, a major challenge for the store, Nguyen said she is worried about finding new stylists. She doesn't expect more than one of her six employees to return after such a long absence. "I think we lost a lot of customers," Nguyen said. "People are not going to wait to get their haircut. They are going to go somewhere else." Nguyen said she's expecting a "big loss" in 2021. "I think it is going to take a couple of years to get back to normal."

1st. Av. S.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Former
Office Depot
location
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
Lake St.
35W
.
1
E. 31st St.
Dollar
Tree
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
2
3
A
V
Cost Cutters
4
5
Former Sprint location
Nicollet Av.
Gas station
canopy
6
Best Wash Laundromat
7
Los Hornos del Rey
8
A to Z
Gas Stop
Variety Beauty
9
Unoccupied space
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
10
11
Former
Payless Shoes
location
Subway
Car wash
E. 31st St.
Unoccupied space
Lake St.
Former
Office Depot
location
Parking
areas
1
Dollar
Tree
2
3
Cost Cutters
Former Sprint location
4
Best Wash Laundromat
5
Los Hornos del Rey
6
Variety Beauty
7
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
Subway
8
Former
Payless Shoes
location
10
11
9
Nicollet Av.
1st. Av. S.
A to Z
Gas Stop
E. 31st St.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
35W
.
E. 31st St.
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
A
V

4. Sprint

Owner: T-Mobile, based in Bellevue, Wash.

In its lease, Sprint had the option to leave early if its store was significantly damaged by fire in the last two and a half years of the contract, and the riots took place just within that period, according to shopping center owner Tom Roberts. In a written response to questions, a company spokesperson said the decision to close was based on the "overall cost to rebuild the location," and that "the decision to not reopen the location was not due to safety/security concerns." At least 10 of the company's Twin Cities locations — including its T-Mobile brand — were damaged or destroyed in the riots.

5. Best Wash Laundromat

Owner: Cheng Liu
Country of origin: China

When Cheng Liu immigrated to the United States, he opened a restaurant in New York. But after moving to Minnesota, he opened a laundromat because he thought it would be more profitable, according to his son, Mickey Liu, who now helps run the business. It became the first of three family-owned laundromats. It escaped major damage during the riots because two employees stayed behind to keep out looters.

While the business is closed, the family is taking the opportunity to upgrade, spending $60,000 to replace plumbing that leaked two years ago, causing damage to the Sprint store next door. Liu hopes there are no more construction delays. "Another laundromat opened a couple of miles away and we are worried that we could lose a lot of our business if we don't reopen soon," Liu said.

6. Los Hornos del Rey

Owner: Cecilia Guerrero
Country of origin: Mexico

Cecilia Guerrero was working as a secretary for this bakery when the owner was deported to Mexico in 2006. She took over, but the company was in trouble with the IRS, which led to the closing of three of its four bakeries. Guerrero held onto the Highland Plaza location with the help of shopping center owner Tom Roberts, who went with her to meetings with the IRS and loaned her enough money to buy back equipment that had been seized by the government. Through an interpreter, Guerrero said she was a reluctant entrepreneur. "If I didn't take over ... everybody would be out of a job, including myself, " she said.

Though Guerrero hopes to open the bakery in January, she is sad that she is missing out on Christmas and, even more importantly, Epiphany on Jan. 6. Also known as Three Kings Day, Epiphany is typically the shop's biggest day of the year, generating $7,000 in business in just two days. The biggest seller is a special bread baked just for that holiday called Rosca de Reyes, better known in some parts of the U.S. as king cake.

1st. Av. S.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Former
Office Depot
location
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
Lake St.
35W
.
1
E. 31st St.
Dollar
Tree
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
2
3
A
V
Cost Cutters
4
5
Former Sprint location
Nicollet Av.
Gas station
canopy
6
Best Wash Laundromat
7
Los Hornos del Rey
8
A to Z
Gas Stop
Variety Beauty
9
Unoccupied space
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
10
11
Former
Payless Shoes
location
Subway
Car wash
E. 31st St.
Unoccupied space
Lake St.
Former
Office Depot
location
Parking
areas
1
Dollar
Tree
2
3
Cost Cutters
Former Sprint location
4
Best Wash Laundromat
5
Los Hornos del Rey
6
Variety Beauty
7
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
Subway
8
Former
Payless Shoes
location
10
11
9
Nicollet Av.
1st. Av. S.
A to Z
Gas Stop
E. 31st St.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
35W
.
E. 31st St.
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
A
V

7. Variety Beauty Supply

Owner: Daniel and Sara Ahn
Country of origin: Korea

Ten years after moving from Korea to Minnesota, Daniel and Sara Ahn opened their first retail store. They now own three 7 Mile Fashion outlets in the Twin Cities. In late 2019, they added a fourth location when the family purchased the last store of their main competitor, Variety Beauty Supply. That store, along with two 7 Mile outlets, were destroyed in the riots, resulting in more than $1 million in uninsured losses. In December, the family reopened its store in north Minneapolis and family members expect to reopen the Variety Beauty location in January. Gina Ahn said her parents, who are both 65, still work seven days a week.

"There is a work ethic that immigrants have that I don't understand, probably because I was born here," Gina Ahn said. "I don't know where they find the energy. And it's not just my parents. You have to have a special kind of strength and power to move to a country where you don't know the language."

8. Cheng's Chinese Garden

Owner: Chun Chen
Country of origin: China

Chun Chen grew up working in her parent's restaurant in upstate New York. She was working at a restaurant in Louisiana when she saw a "help wanted" advertisement for a job at Cheng's in 2015. She started out working the front desk, but a year later — with the help of relatives in China — she and her husband bought the restaurant. After Cheng's was destroyed in the riots, she and her husband started working at Asian House, her uncle's Chinese restaurant in Edina.

To help keep Cheng's from losing its regular customers, Chen has been forwarding calls to the restaurant to her cellphone and filling the orders at Asian House. "We're doing about four orders a day," she said through an interpreter. Chen said she is both nervous and relieved at the idea of reopening in January. "How is the business going to do?" she asked. "Will the riots happen again? Are the customers going to come back?"

9. A to Z Gas Stop

Owner: Halim Zerka
Country of origin: Lebanon

Joe Zerka said his father never wanted his children to follow him into the convenience store business. "My dad wanted us to have desk jobs, 401ks and stuff like that," Zerka recalled. Then, 23 years after starting the store, Halim Zerka came down with a brain disorder that left him unable to care for himself. Zerka, who had recently obtained his master's degree, quit his job at the University of Minnesota and took over his father's store. He quickly invested $100,000 to add a separate tobacco shop, which he says saved A to Z at a time when the city's ban on menthol products was driving down sales.

Zerka said he has enjoyed the career switch. "My favorite time to be here is 8 to midnight," he said. "That is when the fun is." Looters destroyed the store, causing more than $1 million in damage. Zerka isn't sure his family's insurance policy will cover all of the losses, but he is moving forward and taking over an empty spot next to the store to expand, adding a Champs Chicken franchise.

1st. Av. S.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Former
Office Depot
location
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
Lake St.
35W
.
1
E. 31st St.
Dollar
Tree
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
2
3
A
V
Cost Cutters
4
5
Former Sprint location
Nicollet Av.
Gas station
canopy
6
Best Wash Laundromat
7
Los Hornos del Rey
8
A to Z
Gas Stop
Variety Beauty
9
Unoccupied space
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
10
11
Former
Payless Shoes
location
Subway
Car wash
E. 31st St.
Unoccupied space
Lake St.
Former
Office Depot
location
Parking
areas
1
Dollar
Tree
2
3
Cost Cutters
Former Sprint location
4
Best Wash Laundromat
5
Los Hornos del Rey
6
Variety Beauty
7
Cheng’s Chinese Garden
Subway
8
Former
Payless Shoes
location
10
11
9
Nicollet Av.
1st. Av. S.
A to Z
Gas Stop
E. 31st St.
Lake St.
MPLS.
Nicollet Av.
1St. Av. S.
.
35W
.
E. 31st St.
Highland Plaza
Shopping Center
MINNEAPOLIS
MINNEAPOLIS
A
V

10. Subway

Owner: Kim Seng
Country of origin: Cambodia

Kim Seng and his family escaped Cambodia in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge seized control and began a campaign of genocide that killed more than 1 million people. Seng landed in the Twin Cities, where he worked as a bookkeeper before starting the first of several businesses. Seng said he always wanted to be rich, and he believed Subway offered his best path to success. He invested $150,000 to open his first Subway franchise at Highland Plaza in 1989. Though he said the neighborhood was "rough" at that time, he said Subway believed he could handle the location because "I came from a rough country like Cambodia — fighting all the time."

By 2015, Seng had five Subway shops and had achieved his goal of becoming a millionaire, though he has since sold off several of his franchises. Now 75, Seng said he is going to let his nephew run the Highland Plaza location when it reopens this spring. He said it never occurred to him to simply take his insurance money and close the shop. "Family is important," Seng said. "My nephew is going to make good money here."

11. Payless Shoes

Owner: Payless ShoeSource, based in Topeka, Kan.

Payless went bankrupt in 2019 and closed all 2,000 of its stores in the U.S., including its location at Highland Plaza.

Map source: OpenStreetMap, Architectural Consortium LLC