Last month we ran a story about local specialty shops but several readers e-mailed to let us know we had omitted Fremont's Fine Foods (7901 Fourth, NW), a North Valley shop that is probably the Duke City's oldest specialty foods store. I spoke with Aimee Tang, great-granddaughter of Fremont's founder, about the shop and its long history of providing Albuquerque with gourmet imported foods.
Your great-grandfather started Fremont's almost 100 years ago, is that right?
Almost 100. In 1918, Edward Gaw opened up a shop on Central Avenue [at Sixth Street]. He was an immigrant from China—actually my brother and I are the first generation, on the Tang side, born in America. As was common back then, he came to the New World to seek opportunity and then went back to China where he got married and had my grandfather. He went back and forth between here and China many times. ... My grandfather was fortunate enough to come to the States and study electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Then he went back to China and married my grandmother where they started their family. Edward Gaw brought over his wife and family not long after while my grandfather and his family stayed in China. They finally left in the early '50s.
And the shop stayed open the whole time?
Albuquerque was a small dusty town at the time. Great-grandfather was bringing in high-end products and he'd load up his wagon and deliver goods to the more affluent families in town. [When he wasn't there] members of the other Chinese families, like the Ong family who started New Chinatown Restaurant, worked at the store too.
What kind of stuff were they selling back then?
A lot of European food and gourmet items they brought from California. They also did catering and cooking. One of my grandmother's earliest memories is of making Thanksgiving turkeys. She'd never made a turkey in her life and she was told, ’we need x number of turkeys' for this holiday she'd never even heard of.
There wasn't anybody named Fremont there?
No. My great-grandfather chose to use the name Gaw because the character for his name sounded something like that. My grandfather chose Tang even though the character is actually something more like [she pronounces the name not quite as ’Tang' or ’Thung' but something in between]. Our speculation is that great-grandpa knew he needed to get acclimated right away so he chose from a list of trademark-free names that his lawyer gave him. General Fremont had been a very popular figure out West and he seemed like a very strong, sturdy, reputable person. I think that's what great-grandpa wanted to get at. You know, here's a shop that people will be willing to try. Albuquerque was a little up-and-coming city along a major trade route and the more affluent people who settled here or gained affluence here wanted that European connection and Fremont's brought it to them.
The shop was on Central through the '50s, but it's moved a couple of times since, right?
In 1959 Gene Tang, my grandfather, took over and in 1965 he moved Fremont's to Coronado Center. It had just opened up at that time. We were one of the oldest tenants, until Gateway moved into our space.
Wait, you got the boot because of Gateway?
Well ... yeah. That was our, our kick into the new economy. Fremont's had been there since the '60s. There were items in the attic that had been there since then. So we disappeared for an unexpected amount of time. We left Coronado in August of 1998. We didn't know that a build-out would take so long. It took six-plus months and we didn't end up opening until Memorial Day weekend in 1999. We still have customers coming in and saying “I remember when my parents took me to your Central location. Is Gene still here?” We've made a lot of changes since then.
What kind of changes?
Richard Tang, my father, he acquired the business in 1983 with my mom, Dr. Mary Tang. She's from Jemez Pueblo so now my dad's a citizen. It's funny, on one side of my family we're so new here and on the other side we've been here ... well ... forever! My mom works at Sandia National Labs and Dad runs the business. He brought in the boxed lunches and does a lot of the deliveries.
Not with a horse and carriage anymore?
No, we need a lot more horsepower to get around this big, big city.
So what is the boxed lunch like?
It comes with sandwich, salad and dessert. We make our own honey whole wheat bread and the salads are chopped fruit or vegetables. We try to keep things healthy and basic. My dad has also expanded the U.K. and Irish imported [foods]. It turns out we have a huge number of expats from the British Isles.
Yeah! That's really expanded our business. We're up in this little corner of the city but people travel from all over to come in and get their stuff and chat with us about old times. That's the best part of it for us.