When Donguk Kim first came to America from South Korea in 2003, he never dreamed he would one day be the proprietor of a storied market in Washington’s most historic neighborhood. But he did have dreams.
“I wanted to be a successful businessman in America and I heard there were many chances there,” he said.
He came to Maryland in 2004 with his wife and son. They lived in a homestay and attended church with their host. Through a church connection, he began running a dollar store a few months later. After that, he ran a deli in Silver Spring. That’s what Kim was doing in 2012 when he saw a listing in the Korea Times for Scheele’s Market, at 1331 29th St. NW.
Considering the market’s loyal customer base, taking over Scheele’s was no simple matter. The 120-year-old market has been a staple in the neighborhood for generations. Indeed, a few years ago, neighbors contributed to a special fund to ensure that the building remain a market through an agreement with the property owner.
Kim has taken the initiative to maintain the market’s strong relationship with the customers who come for groceries, beer and wine and fresh deli sandwiches. The blizzard of 2016 also gave him a chance to shine: he was open throughout the weekend. “I’m always listening to what my customers want and I try to get it soon,” he said, referring to his plan to add requested merchandise to the shelves.
Kim’s customers, meanwhile, love the quality of the food, the dedicated service and the friendship the quaint market fosters. Scheele loyalists include senators and the Secretary of Energy, who once posed for a photo with Kim.
They are just as devoted to Scheele’s as Kim is to them. One customer described the recent attempts to get a few tables and chairs out front, allowing customers to eat their sandwiches while enjoying the scenery and the buzz of life in Georgetown (that plan has not yet been approved by the District).
Kim believes that the market has the potential to become more profitable. Grocery purchases currently account for about half of sales, he said, and new customers are few. Though the work is hard and the hours are long, he enjoys interacting with the community and getting the chance to experience life in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve liked adventure all through my life. South Korea is not a bad country, but I was always longing for America.”
Along with running a business, Kim has managed to fulfill that desire for adventure by visiting places such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Mexico and Miami. And he also has Scheele’s, which, though quiet and unassuming at first glance, has certainly been an adventure of its own.