The Quan family knows a little about what it takes to keep a mom and pop business alive: over nine decades they’ve built a business in Oakland’s Chinatown that has become known as the Place to buy noodles in the East Bay. Step inside, under the sun-faded kelly green awnings, and you’ll find all the classic hallmarks of a busy family business: children scampering between the shelves, neighbors calling each other by name. Whole lives are lived in the store.
Quan family patriarch and Chinese immigrant Quong Pon opened Yuen Hop Co. to sell his homegrown bean sprouts and fresh tofu. That was in 1931, before the neighborhood was the explosion of local markets it is today, and before even the Golden Gate or Bay Bridges existed. The market gradually expanded its selection, offering a variety of products – including Asian specialties such as bitter melon and gnarled fresh lotus root – along with other grocery and pantry items and, of course, noodles. The family acquired a second space nearby to house noodle production and eventually noodles became the main business. Today, the comprehensive Asian food, fruit and noodle distributor stocks rice and egg noodles, won tan wrappers and dumpling skins in a stunning range of styles and shapes. Yuen Hop now sells about 20 different types of noodles, eight of which are made in the family’s factory around the corner.
Sabrina Cribbin, Pon’s fourth-generation great-granddaughter and Quan, is the current co-manager of the market and noodle factory, which supplies chewy egg noodles fresh daily to local cooks, grocery retailers, including the Berkeley Bowl, and home cooks throughout the Bay Area. She hopes the youngest generation understands the depth of the struggle involved in starting the company – and keeping it going over the years. “They worked so hard, seven days a week, no holidays or breaks,” she says, recounting how her great-grandfather immigrated to California from Guangzhou, China, for a better future. He left his 23-year-old wife and young son and sent money back to support them. His son eventually followed and enlisted in the US Army. And almost four decades after her husband first made the trip, Quong’s wife was able to move to Oakland. “I remember them sitting in the store together, just chatting and smoking cigarettes,” says Cribbin. “It was always the meeting place.”
Perhaps based on these memories, Cribbin associates the Chinese meaning of the market name with the concept of a family reunion. But her 84-year-old mother Sylvia Quan, owner and still active in the business every day, carefully corrects her. “‘Yuen’ means ’round,’ which refers to coins or money, and ‘hop’ means ‘together,'” says Quan. “So it really means all the money comes together, or a good deal.”
Cribbin’s father, David Quan, died in 2019, but she remembers him running the bean sprout business as a child. “You’d have to wake up in the middle of the night to water them,” she says — though her father eventually devised an irrigation system to do the job so the family could get more sleep. Similarly, years later he designed the company’s noodle production machines and adapted equipment he found in Malaysia.
The homemade egg noodles are a local favorite for good reason. “We don’t skimp on ingredients,” says Cribbin, revealing that only “real eggs,” flour, salt, and water make up the dense noodles Yuen Hop Co. is known for. These noodles also make killer garlic noodles, an enduring example of Asian fusion cuisine reportedly originated by San Francisco restaurateur Helene An in the 1970s. The version Cribbin and her mom make is a well-balanced crowd pleaser that uses fish sauce, oyster sauce and Parmesan cheese for an umami punch.
It is this commitment to quality and the hard work of generations that earned Yuen Hop a Special Honor of Oakland Heritage from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2017, a recognition that it is one of the city’s oldest family businesses. “It was pretty cool for the family,” says Cribbin, referring to the party at City Hall and other notable honorees, including chef and restaurateur Tanya Holland, owner of the former Brown Sugar Kitchen.
After her own career in real estate, Cribbin returned to the family business in her late forties to help her parents. That was 12 years ago. Now, nearly a century into Yuen Hop Co.’s history, family members have passed away and the neighborhood has evolved, but the sixth generation still occasionally rampages in its hallways. Cribbin’s four-year-old granddaughter is like “the queen bee” when she walks in, she says. “She pretends to be grocery shopping and says ‘good morning’ to customers in Chinese,” says Cribbin. “She loves it here and everyone loves her.”
Cribbin and Quan describe how the environment around them has changed in recent years, particularly the pressures of the pandemic adding new challenges to an already demanding lifestyle. Whether the history of Yuen Hop Co. will survive the next hundred years is uncertain. But Cribbin welcomed a new granddaughter into the world just months ago, and there was plenty of pasta at the red egg and ginger party that celebrated her arrival. It’s natural to wonder how long it will be before baby can taste the family heritage for himself. “I hope [the younger generations] recognize how hard their ancestors worked to get to where we are now,” says Quan, expressing gratitude for the market’s loyal customers over the years. “I want them to know that it’s so important to always work hard, be nice to people and take care of the family.”