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'I'm trying my best to come back': Owner of burnt-down Steveston grocery store

Super Grocer & Pharmacy owner Sam Lu says he is grateful for the outpouring of community support.

Four months after a devastating fire, the owner of a beloved Steveston grocery store is hoping the community knows how much he appreciates their support.

"I'm very grateful. I'm touched by the outreach," said Sam Lu, who owns Super Grocer & Pharmacy.

A fundraiser held by Steveston Sound & Stage in partnership with Steveston United Church managed to raise more than $8,000 for employees last month, and community support extended far beyond the fundraiser.

"The community as a whole has reached out to us and said, 'We support you, we love you, we miss you. Please come back," said Lu.

"So that's what I hear, and I'm trying my best to come back."

In the months following the fire, Lu and his staff were able to find a new location for the pharmacy on Chatham Road and sell some of the stock from their Moncton Street warehouse.

However, the city recently rejected Super Grocer's application to transfer its business licence to the pop-up store location.

The warehouse was only meant for storage and not mercantile purposes, Lu explained, adding that he has engaged an architect to work on putting in another application in the hopes of finding a home for his groceries and flowers.

The City of Richmond, on the other hand, declined to comment on the business licence application.

"The city cannot comment on individual business licence application cases as this would compromise the privacy of the applicant. All applications are assessed to see if they comply with the city’s bylaws," city spokesperson Gerina Heathe told the News.

Watching a family business burn down

Super Grocer & Pharmacy, a Steveston community staple for more than six decades including its predecessor, was destroyed in a fire that started shortly before 5 p.m. on Jan. 26.

Lu told the Richmond News he had gone home early that day. But when he got home, he received a call from store manager Bill Yang that there was a fire at the store.

"And my reaction was to say, 'Hey, put it out.' Unfortunately, I was wrong. It was too big to put out," he recalled.

Lu immediately logged into his security feed, which stayed live until around 6 p.m. Yang would remain on site for another three hours until around 9 p.m. to keep Lu updated.

"And as the store burned down, I watched it burn down," he said.

"Was it fun watching the store burn? No, of course not. It was heartbreaking."

Everyone was safely evacuated, but the building eventually met its demise. Crews demolished the building within a week after the fire and the final phase of the cleanup is expected to complete this week.

The News has reached out to Richmond Fire-Rescue for more information about the cause of the fire but did not receive a response by publication.

Keeping the family business going

Thinking about the long term, the Super Grocer owner is looking into several proposals for a potential rebuild on the No. 1 Road site.

Lu told the News the insurance claim has been approved, but he has yet to receive any of the compensation.

"So when I have more money, let's see how much money is left," he said. "So that's where we're at. Beyond that, I really can't plan more than that. It is what it is. Too many unknowns."

However, he hopes the family business is here to stay.

"It's not that we have no options or no resources. We've had this business for over 40 years, and we are not the family that spends it all away," Lu said.

"A lot of the money came back into Steveston to help in growing the community."

Super Grocer also played an important role in Steveston amid a "food desert" for many of its elderly residents, he added, as there is a lack of affordable fresh options when it comes to grocery shopping.

"Some are in tears when they talk to me, saying, 'When can you reopen?'"

Lu, who took over the store from his father, said he grew up with Super Grocer.

"Super Grocer was my home more than my house because I spent more time here," he said.

Lu's parents took over the store, which used to be called Super Valu, in 1979. Then a franchise, Lu's parents were told by the franchiser within a few months of taking over that they could eventually go bankrupt if their sales remained the same.

"We came here with little money and owing lots of debt," Lu recalled.

With that in mind, his parents would tally up sales every night at closing, which used to be around 6 p.m.

"If (the sales didn't) hit that magic number, the rest of the staff would go home, my mom and my dad would stay until they hit that magic number," said Lu.

Lu and his five siblings would help out after school and during their free time as well, be it ordering or stocking the shelves. 

In fact, Lu, who studied pharmacy at UBC, was the one who introduced the pharmacy to Super Grocer's services around two decades ago.

'We're a family'

Lu recalled there were "a zillion and one things to be done" immediately after the fire.

"The first thing really was to make sure that all the employees were okay," he said.

Fortunately for Lu, Super Grocer's insurer immediately jumped into action and filed a claim for him, while staff also took matters into their own hands and began organizing logistics with suppliers.

Apart from efforts from store manager Yang, Lu also credits pharmacy manager Cecille Chui for her quick decision-making. Chui realized "right away" that it was important to continue to care for patients and swiftly moved the pharmacy into their Ackroyd Road location.

Lu added that the city was also kind enough to expedite permits to allow the Super Grocer pharmacy to get set up in its new Chatham Street location.

However, despite having extensive insurance coverage, Lu was ultimately forced to lay off more than 50 employees, which was made even more difficult due to his records being destroyed in the fire.

A silver lining, though, is that several local businesses were open to taking in Super Grocer employees when Lu and his staff made inquiries.

The community support didn't stop there either.

Steveston United Church's Robert Wilson, a longtime patron at Super Grocer and one of the organizers of the March fundraiser led by Alex Sagert, told the News local merchants came together to donate prizes for the silent auction. 

Many local volunteers and hundreds of participants also came to the event, which successfully raised funds to support all employees.

It was important to focus on employees, said Wilson, because they were "most hurt" by the tragedy.

"It's a family, right? What are you supposed to do when a family gets hurt? You gotta help them," he said.

The fundraiser featured live music performances, a silent auction as well as a GoFundMe.

The community, as well as his family's legacy, both contribute to Lu's determination to rebuild Super Grocer.

"A lot of people said, 'You're old, retire. Go spend the money.' And I said, 'That's not me. I want to keep going."

As for the pop-up store, while the city has yet to provide Lu with a deadline, it will have to close in the near future. The main concern will be to get rid of their stock of perishables as soon as possible.

"I'm still sad. There's so many levels of grief that you can go through," said Lu.

"Right now, I just feel like I want to fight for the survival of Super Grocer... It's not something I want to see just fade away."

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