Award honours humble grocery visionary

In the 50 years that Don Yuen has been in the grocery business, the Fairway Market owner has come a long way since not knowing the English names of the vegetables he was selling.

by Erin McCracken

Black Press

In the 50 years that Don Yuen has been in the grocery business, the Fairway Market owner has come a long way since not knowing the English names of the vegetables he was selling.

“It took me 10 times to say ‘lettuce,’” Yuen recalls with a smile.

Today, Fairway Market has 780 employees, and a 10th store is scheduled to open in Brentwood Bay in July.

“He didn’t plan it that way,” said Yuen’s son, Doug, Fairway Market president and CEO. “He did what he enjoyed.”

In recognition of Yuen’s achievements, the Ethno Business Council of B.C. recently awarded the 78-year-old Oak Bay resident a lifetime achievement award.

But his path to success was not easy.

Growing up in southern China, he learned the ways of the grocery business from his grandfather and father, who had a supermarket. But faced with difficult political and economic times, Yuen left at age 17 to work for his uncle’s grocery store in Duncan.

Despite not knowing a word of English, Yuen worked hard to send money home to help his parents.

When his uncle sold the store, Yuen worked in a sawmill for eight years, always dreaming of one day opening his own grocery business.

“I didn’t know how long it would take,” he says. “Eight years is a long time.”

Since buying his first grocery store in 1963 in the same block where his first Fairway Market now sits at Gorge and Tillicum roads, Yuen has slowly yet steadily built his company from scratch.

Still, Yuen is most proud that some of his first customers are still regulars, and generations of families work for him.