Robert Lee (CT Examiner/Hewitt)

From his Grocery, Robert Lee Talks Business, Surveys Changes in New London

NEW LONDON — Robert Lee watched a steady stream of traffic travel down Williams Street into Hodges Square on Thursday morning. 

“We live here, upstairs, it’s very noisy with all the trucks,” said Lee, who owns Lee’s Oriental Market at 432 Williams Street. “It’s a very short commute.”       

Lee, 56, inherited the business from his parents, who started it in 1980. He’s been around the neighborhood, Hodges Square, for most of his life and is hoping for some changes and improvements.

Across the street, the Citgo gas station, which includes a convenience store, was recently rebuilt, he said. 

“I think that’s encouraging others to do something, a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ kind of thing,” he said. “Even the houses are getting redone on the outside at least.” 

He said he hoped that momentum would spread to the apartment building owners up on Williams Street and down into the square. 

“If I had the money I would love to do something like they did in Mystic downtown, the Central Hall — the first floor is all occupied, not sure about the upstairs. Hopefully they get occupants for the apartments or condos.”

With changes, the neighborhood could attract a younger demographic, said Lee.

“That’s what we need, more of the younger generation, more places that everybody can use. More usable neighborhoods, walkable, bike-friendly. We’ve got a lot of people riding the bikes, which is great, but then we have a lot of people riding in their noisy cars and trucks,” he said. 

Despite the pandemic, Lee has remained open, with protocols for safety. A sign on his door reads “For the safety of our staff and yourself, wear a face mask or covering inside the building.” 

“I had a customer come in without a mask and I was freaking out and I said I had to have a sign,” he said. 

Lee said that business has been a little slow and competition from area discount stores is intense.                 

“It’s not easy to run the store and all the competition — now we’ve got Costco, so that’s going to make it worse,” he said. 

According to Lee, stores send people over to see what he’s selling and then order similar products.

Lee also said that the pandemic has affected his supply chain and he can’t keep in stock all of his usual offerings. 

As if to illustrate the point, a customer came in, peered into a chest freezer and asked Lee for wontons.

“We don’t have them,” Lee answered. “They’re in New York.” 

Before the pandemic, Lee said he traveled regularly to New York and New Jersey to pick up products from his wholesalers. 

“I’ve called a lot of the wholesalers and their workers are sick. If I go there, there’s one guy in a warehouse, one person in the sales office, so I have to wait three hours instead of 15 minutes to pick up my stuff and I go to like 20 wholesalers so I have to be there at least two or three days,” he said. “So I’m planning on going just to New York for one day and some other time I’ll go to New Jersey. Before I could do it all in one day.”

He said that the big stores have trucks coming in everyday, making it easier to keep up with customer demand for products. And at least during the pandemic, Lee said, wholesalers have been prioritizing big businesses. 

“I have only one company making deliveries and that’s it,” he said. “It’s a wait and see. I was going to go at the end of June, but then there were the protests. I saw some pictures in the media and there were some people who didn’t have the mask on, so that put me off to go later. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, I’ve got to play it by ear. I’m keeping tabs on the numbers.”

Lee said he was extra-cautious about the risks of COVID-19 because he has no health insurance. 

Lee has plans for refurbishing the building next door, which he owns, but that project is on hold. 

“I own this building and the building next door and the whole plan was after we bought it was to move over there and to tear this down for parking, but we had a contractor out of East Lyme and he took the money and ran so I lost a lot of money,” he said. “So I got ripped off and ever since then I’m hesitant.”

The building next door was gutted and the siding replaced but Lee is letting the project sit for now. 

And with Connecticut College not in session, nor the Coast Guard Academy, he’s not getting the usual amount of traffic. But, Lee said he’s hopeful that the larger projects in the area will bring in foot traffic. 

“EB is doing something here and the wind project, that’s going to help bring jobs,” he said. “And hopefully won’t create too much smog with trucks coming and going and people going to work,” he said. 

Lee said he’d like to encourage the New London administration to install electric charging stations for electric cars.

“I’m living across from three gas stations and I can’t wait until these guys go out of business. I would rather have these be mixed-use buildings, with apartments above with first floor restaurants or retail, with charging stations throughout this neighborhood,” he said. “I’m glad we got Tesla chargers by Marshalls, but I want people with other electric cars. It’ll be a lot better, a lot cleaner.” 

Lee looked out at his neighborhood again. 

“Growing pains,” he said.

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