The Quan family knows something about what it takes to keep a mom-and-pop operation alive: Over nine decades, they’ve built a business in Oakland’s Chinatown that’s 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 markers of a bustling family business: kids scurrying between shelves, neighbors who call each other by name. Whole lives are lived inside the shop.
Quan family patriarch and Chinese immigrant Quong Pon opened Yuen Hop Co. as a place to sell his homegrown bean sprouts and fresh tofu. That was in 1931 before the neighborhood was the explosion of local markets it is now and before even the Golden Gate or Bay bridges existed. The market gradually expanded its selection, offering a variety of produce — including Asian specialties like 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 accommodate noodle production, and eventually, noodles became the main business. Today, the full-scale Asian grocery, produce market, and noodle distributor carries rice and egg noodles, wonton wrappers, and dumpling skins in a head-spinning 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 market and noodle factory that supplies local chefs, grocery retailers including Berkeley Bowl, and home cooks across the Bay Area with chewy egg noodles, made fresh daily. She hopes the youngest generation understands the depth of the struggle involved in starting the business — and keeping it going over the years. “They worked so hard, seven days a week, no vacations or breaks,” she says, sharing how her great-grandfather immigrated from Guangzhou, China, to California for a better future. He left his 23-year-old wife and young son behind, sending money back to support them. His son eventually followed, joining the U.S. army. And nearly four decades after her husband first made the trip, Quong’s wife was able to move to Oakland. “I remember them sitting inside the store together, just chatting and smoking cigarettes,” Cribbin says. “It was always the gathering place.”
Perhaps because of these memories, Cribbin associates the Chinese meaning of the market’s name with the concept of a family gathering. But her 84-year-old mother Sylvia Quan, owner and still an active daily presence in the shop, gently corrects her. “‘Yuen” means ‘round,’ which refers to coins or money, and ‘hop’ means ‘together,’” Quan says. “So it really translates to all money flowing together, or good business.”
Cribbin’s father David Quan passed away in 2019. But she still remembers him managing the bean sprout operation when she was a child. “You’d have to wake up in the middle of the night to water them,” she says — though her dad eventually devised an irrigation system to handle the job so the family could get more sleep. Similarly, years later, he designed the machinery for the company’s noodle production, customizing equipment he found in Malaysia.
The proprietary egg noodles are a local favorite for a reason. “We don’t skimp on ingredients,” Cribbin says, divulging that only “real eggs,” flour, salt, and water make up the dense noodles for which Yuen Hop Co. is known. These noodles also make killer garlic noodles, an enduring example of Asian fusion food that reportedly originated in the 1970s with San Francisco restaurateur Helene An. The version Cribbin and her mom make is a balanced crowd-pleaser, leveraging fish sauce, oyster sauce, and Parmesan cheese for an umami punch.
It is this commitment to quality and the generations of hard work that earned Yuen Hop a special distinction from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2017 as an Oakland legacy business, a recognition that it’s one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the city. “It was pretty cool for the family,” Cribbin says, referring to the party at city hall and other notable honorees, including chef-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 the story of Yuen Hop Co., family members have passed away and the neighborhood has evolved, but the sixth generation still occasionally frolics in its aisles. Cribbin’s four-year-old granddaughter is like “the queen bee” when she comes in, she says. “She pretends to grocery shop and says ‘good morning’ in Chinese to the customers,” Cribbin shares. “She loves it here, and everyone loves her.”
Cribbin and Quan describe how the environment has changed around them in recent years, the pressures of the pandemic, in particular, adding new challenges to an already demanding lifestyle. Whether Yuen Hop Co.’s story will persist into the next hundred years feels uncertain. But Cribbin welcomed a new granddaughter to the world just months ago, and noodles were plentiful at the red egg and ginger party celebrating her arrival. It’s natural to wonder how long it will be before the baby is able to taste the family legacy for herself. “I hope [the younger generations] realize how hard their ancestors worked to get where we are now,” Quan says, expressing thanks 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 your family.”