Upscale Ginseng Sales Drive a Local Business

Article and photos by Samuel Nakashima

It’s been 12 years since Marinda Lau took her entire $3,000 in savings and drove more than 1,000 miles to Wisconsin from New York to purchase her first barrel of ginseng. Now her son Carl Chen makes the trek to retrieve this valuable root, prized by Chinese people and aficionados of herbal remedies for its medicinal qualities.

At the time, cheap Chinese ginseng was flooding the market, and Lau saw an opportunity to develop a niche for a higher-quality variety. Those annual trips to Wisconsin have become the key to developing Lau’s company, Great Neck Healthy Food, over the past decade. The company has come a long way since Lau began selling ginseng from the folding table in front of a 99-cents store in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn; today, the company has eight outlets in three states and one in Shanghai.

“The best ginseng is grown in Wisconsin, which is the best in America, which has the best grown ginseng in the world,” said Chen, the general manager of Great Neck Healthy Food. “Wisconsin grows the type known as quinquefolius. It’s supposed to have a more cooling effect on the body.”

Marinda Lau (left) speaks with a customer at her outlet store in Flushing, Queens — one of eight owned by Great Neck Healthy Food.

For thousands of years, the root of ginseng plants has been a staple in traditional Chinese medicine because of its “yin and yang”, or “cooling” and “heating,” properties. American ginseng has cooling properties that bring balance and maintain fluids in the human body, compared to Korean ginseng, which is known for hotter properties. What makes ginseng valuable is its active components, ginsenocides, and while no scientific evidence supports the benefits of ginsenosides in humans, aficionados believe in its healing properties.

It took Lau two years of promoting and selling her ginseng before she finally was able to upgrade from her makeshift stand to an established storefront on Main Street in Flushing. Since then, Great Neck Healthy Food has expanded to eight stores in the United States, including ones in New Jersey, Massachusetts and, most recently, Shanghai. The company offers an array of merchandise, from whole roots of different ages and sizes to teabags, shavings and packaged powder for soup. Currently, Lau is working on opening a factory in Long Island to efficiently package and process her ginseng products. She is waiting until it meets “good manufacturing practices,” or GMP, a system for ensuring quality control of merchandise production. The factory is expected to be fully operational in 2018.

Lau credits her success to the high-quality Wisconsin ginseng. “I understood ginseng was a good thing, but there was a lot of Chinese ginseng in the market,” Lau recalled. “There was a consumer base, but they don’t know where to buy good ginseng.”

Because of the high volume of Chinese ginseng, a trusted source for American ginseng was difficult to find.

“In those times, people would sell Chinese ginseng for $100 per five pounds,” she explained. “I was selling my American ginseng for $360 per pound.”

Chen now replenishes the stock quarterly, with shipments of four to eight barrels of ginseng weighing 150 pounds each. The relationship Great Neck Healthy Food has with growers in Wisconsin, is crucial. That’s where, according to the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin, 95 percent of ginseng grown in the United States is cultivated.

“There isn’t much ginseng grown in the United States outside of Wisconsin,” said Greg Veers, owner of Veerland Family Farm, in Wausau, Wisc., in a phone interview. The Veerland farm is a member of Wisconsin’s Ginseng & Herb Co-Op, a cooperative dedicated to ensuring that its ginseng meets Department of Agriculture standards, topping off a lengthy and demanding cultivation period for the root.

The barrels of ginseng, each weighing 150 pounds and trucked in from Wisconsin, are restocked four times a year.

Growing ginseng, a delicate procedure, begins with planting the root in an artificial hill surrounded by trenches dug by tractors, allowing proper drainage of the allotted area. It takes three to four years to yield a crop. Once harvested, the ginseng is cleaned and dried before being shipped out to the wholesale market.

“What companies want are good, clean roots,” Veers explained. “This means they have a distinctive shape and no ‘rust,’ or water damage. Beyond that, each company has a different rubric of what makes a root desirable.”

To outpace competition like Prince of Peace Enterprises and Ten Ren, large Chinese herb and herbal supplement distributors, Great Neck Healthy purchases its supplies strictly from the farmers of the Ginseng & Herb Co-Op.

The farmers “can get it from more sources than us and have a lower overhead cost,” Chen said. “But we are good with quality control as our ginseng comes strictly from Wisconsin.”

However, even the best quality ginseng must carefully be sorted and prepared, a process that can take months. Until Lau’s factory in Long Island opens, the ginseng is prepared in the back of her Main Street storefront.

Lau says the ginseng from Wisconsin is of higher quality than that from China — and it sells for far higher prices.

A small, clean space filled with neatly lined barrels brimming with ginseng, glass displays of decades-old twisted roots and shelves filled with intricately packaged teabags and powders, the store emits a naturally heavy and woody aroma from open barrels of ginseng. Scales, grinders and ovens can be seen behind the counter. The hallway behind the counter leads to a series of machine-filled rooms designated for sorting, cleaning, slicing, grinding and packaging. Lau is particularly proud of her signature teabag-prep station.

“After three or four years my business started, everyone asked, ‘Do you have ginseng tea?’” Lau said, continuing, “When my ginseng teabag came out in the market, no one did it like me. Still, no one can compare with me.”

Lau’s popular teabags are neatly designed, replicating the look of a regular teabag. According to Lau, unlike other teabags in the market, she uses finer fabrics that allow for the ginseng chips to steep without “gumming” up the teabag and providing an easy form of consumption for her customers.

Much of Great Neck Healthy Food’s consumer base consists of Chinese-born immigrants and travelers from China who seek the finest ginseng as gifts or for themselves or ailing relatives.

“My grandma uses it to make chicken soup when it gets colder, it’s something about boosting the immune system,” says Dickson Tan, 24, a customer who shops in Lau’s Flushing location during the fall and winter for his grandmother. “I personally don’t believe it has any effect, but it tastes good.”

“It helps get rid of the gunk in your system through sweat,” says customer Philippe Huang, 37, who swears by its medicinal qualities. “I used it ever since I had surgery five years ago. It helped me back then so I decided, ‘why not drink it all the time?’”

Great Neck Healthy Food ensures that its products are, according to Lau, “matched with people for what they need,” a service she believes distinguishes the company from competition and keeps bringing customers back.