The Quan family knows something about what it takes to keep a mom-and-pop operation alive: Over nine decades, they built a business in Oakland’s Chinatown that became known as there where to buy noodles in the East Bay. Step inside, under the sun-faded kelly green awnings, and you’ll find all the classic markers of a bustling family business: kids running through the shelves, neighbors calling each other names. All their lives are lived inside the shop.
Quan family patriarch and Chinese immigrant Quong Pon opened Yuen Hop Co. as a place to sell its bean sprouts and fresh tofu. That was in 1931 before the neighborhood exploded into its current local market 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 fresh lotus root noodles – as well as other groceries and pantry items, and, of course, noodles. The family bought a second space nearby to accommodate noodle production, and eventually, noodles became the main business. Today, all sizes of Asian supermarkets, produce markets, and noodle distributors carry rice and egg noodles, wonton wraps, and dumpling skins in a dizzying array of styles and shapes. Yuen Hop now sells about 20 different types of noodles, eight of which are made in the family’s factory down the street.
Sabrina Cribbin, Pon’s great-granddaughter and a fourth-generation Quan, is the current co-manager of the noodle market and factory that supplies local chefs, grocery retailers including Berkeley Bowl, and home cooks across the Bay Area with ground egg noodles, made fresh every day. He hopes that the younger generation understands the depth of the struggle involved in starting the business – and keeping it going over the years. “They worked hard, seven days a week, no vacation or rest,” he said, sharing how his grandfather immigrated from Guangzhou, China, to California for a better future. He left behind his wife of 23 years and young son, and sent money back to support them. His son eventually followed, joining the US Army. And almost four decades after her husband made the first trip, Quong’s wife was able to move to Oakland. “I remember them sitting inside the store together, just talking and smoking cigarettes,” Cribbin said. “It was always the gathering place.”
Perhaps because of these memories, Cribbin associates the Chinese meaning of the name market with the concept of a family gathering. But his mother Sylvia Quan, 84-year-old, owner and is still an active presence every day in the shop, gently corrected him. “‘Yuen’ means ’round’, which refers to coins or money, and ‘hop’ means ‘together,'” Quan said. “So it really translates to all money flowing together, or good business.”
Cribbin’s father David Quan died in 2019. But he still remembers managing the weight loss surgery as a child. “You’d have to wake up in the middle of the night to water them,” he says — though his father eventually invented an irrigation system to handle the job so the family could sleep more. Similarly, years later, he designed the machine for the company’s noodle production, customizing the equipment he found in Malaysia.
Their proprietary egg noodles are a local favorite for a reason. “We don’t skimp on ingredients,” Cribbin says, disclosing that only “real eggs,” flour, salt, and water make the dense noodles for Yuen Hop Co. These noodles also make killer garlic noodles, an enduring example of Asian fusion food that reportedly dates back to the 1970s with San Francisco restaurateur Helene An. The version Cribbin and his mother make is a crowd-pleaser, combining fish sauce, oyster sauce, and Parmesan cheese for an umami punch.
It is this commitment to quality and generations of hard work that earned Yuen Hop a special distinction from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2017 as an Oakland Heritage Business, a recognition that it is one of the oldest family businesses in the city. “It was very cool for the family,” Cribbin said, referring to the party at City Hall with other notable honorees, including chef-restaurateur Tanya Holland, owner of the former Brown Sugar Kitchen.
After his own career in real estate, Cribbin returned to the family business in his late forties to help his parents. That was 12 years ago. Now, nearly a century into the history of Yuen Hop Co., family members have passed away and the neighborhood has evolved, but the sixth generation still occasionally frolics in its halls. Cribbin’s four-year-old daughter is like the “queen bee” when she comes in, she says. “He pretends to be a grocer and says ‘good morning’ to customers in Chinese,” Cribbin shared. “He loves it here, and everybody loves it.”
Cribbin and Quan describe how the environment has changed around them in recent years, the pressure of the pandemic, in particular, adding new challenges to an already demanding lifestyle. Whether or not the history of Yuen Hop Co. will persist in the next hundred years feels uncertain. But Cribbin welcomed a new daughter into the world just a few months ago, and the noodles were abundant in the red egg and ginger feast to celebrate her arrival. It is natural to wonder how long it will be before the baby can taste the family heritage for himself. “I hope so [the younger generations] realizing how hard our ancestors worked to get to where we are now,” Quan said, expressing thanks for the market’s loyal customers over the years. “I want them to know that it’s very important to always work hard, be kind to people and take care of your family.”