Aimee Tang is a woman with a plan. Well, perhaps not so much a plan as a lifelong mission.
The great granddaughter of Edward Gaw, founder of Fremont's Fine Foods, Aimee is the third generation of her family to helm the establishment that has been an Albuquerque tradition since 1918. In fact, long before Bon Appetit magazine, Food Network, and Cuisinart invaded the average American household, Fremont's was quietly introducing Albuquerqueans to culinary adventures beyond New Mexico's borders.
Part of Aimee's personal mission is to keep that tradition alive and well. With her easy warmth and ready smile, the thirty-four-year-old seems the perfect personality to guide Fremont's as it introduces a whole new generation to the fine art of fine food. Having honed her razor sharp business skills in the dot.com trenches of the late 1990s Silicon Valley, Aimee is certainly ambitious. But with a twist. To her, running a business is about more than the bottom line; it's about forging and nurturing relationships.
"I think one of the best perks about coming back to my family's business is that I get to hear the best stories from my customers," she says. "They come in and tell me how they bought food from us for a romantic picnic with the man that became their husband. Or that this was their first job. Every day I hear how I'm just one degree away from so many people."
Running Fremont's also keeps her in touch with her own family legacy. An immigrant from China, Edward Gaw had traveled to Albuquerque purely for the opportunity. After trying out several businesses, including the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, the ambitious young man opened a food store. A specialty food store. Originally located at 616 Central Avenue SW (currently the site of the Launchpad Bar) Gaw had no trouble attracting clientele. Aimee explains: "If you think about it, almost everyone in Albuquerque at that time was a transplant. So my grandfather brought in all those things that they missed from their home cities or countries and the business just expanded from there."
Although Gaw had come to the states of his own free will, it was a different story for his son Gene. Says Aimee. "My grandfather and his family were very well off back in China. Even the Japanese couldn't budge him. But the communists were the last straw. The one thing you don't want to have when the communists show up is money."
So Fremont's staff expanded by two, with Gene Tang and his wife, Ann, eventually taking over ownership in 1959. In 1965 they moved the store to a prime location in the city's new Coronado Mall. From this fortuitous location, Fremont's built its reputation as Albuquerque's premier specialty food store. In 1983, Gene's son Richard Tang took over, growing the business by adding a highly popular boxed lunch delivery service while continuing to keep the store's shelves stocked with old favorites and abreast of the latest tastes.
Aimee remembers how hard her family worked during these years. While Richard ran the shop, Aimee's mother, Mary, not only worked full time at Sandia National Laboratories but also helped out on her family farm at Jemez Pueblo. Even when forced to move from their Coronado Mall location in 1998, Richard Tang didn't give up. "Dad could have just packed it in and closed up," says Aimee. "I mean, we'd been in the Coronado bubble for so long, we didn't know just how different everything was out there." ("Out there' meant a new location in what essentially amounted to a new city-the Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque in the North Valley.)
Four years later, Aimee entered the picture full time. "I always made my intention clear, that I wanted to come back at some point and run the family business. I always knew what I wanted to do and the path that I'd take to get here." That path included going away to school, majoring in economics, entering a top notch business school and parlaying those credentials into a highly lucrative job with Hewlett Packard in San Francisco. The plan was to make a ton of money and then go back to run Fremont's.
"Well . . ." says Aimee, laughing. "I did make a lot of money. Then I took two years off and spent it all."
Aimee also got married, a task she tackled with similar single-mindedness. A primary requirement in a mate? That he quit his own job within a few years and return with her to New Mexico to help run the family business. Luckily, Danish native Jacob Rasmussen, a software engineer Aimee met while in San Francisco, fit the bill perfectly. Not only did he have a similar head for business, he also had a great passion for food.
Today, Aimee and Jacob run Fremont's, along with their core team of seven staffers and, on a part time basis, Richard himself. Ann Tang helps out on occasion, as does Aimee's brother, Daniel. But because his "life path" is different than hers, Aimee has joyfully accepted that the business is now fully in her hands.
Granted, her life is very different from her days as an on-the-go dot.comer. Which is fine with her. As she puts it, that lavish, insane world was all about making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Her goals are much more personal. "This is about us-me and Jacob and the rest of the family-wanting to have a good life and be happy and be fulfilled."
Not that her first days on the job weren't stressful. One of their first tasks as new owners was to guide the business through yet another move. "We knew our lease would be up in 2005, so Jacob and I started looking early, probably back as early as late 2003." The couple considered relocating back to Central Avenue, but none of the available spaces included a kitchen. Building one from scratch was not within their budget.
In February 2004, a space in The Courtyard at the corner of Lomas and San Mateo came available. Long the location for many of Albuquerque's best (albeit short-lived) restaurants, the quirky, light-filled space not only appealed to Aimee aesthetically, but it also had a walk in refrigerator and freezer as well as a full blown kitchen. After four months of intense clean up and prep work, Fremont's was back up and running on Memorial Day 2005.
Along with the new location come a few basic goals for the short term: reestablish Fremont's Northeast Heights roots while expanding its role as a carrier of hard-to-find specialty food items that meets the needs of a whole new generation of customers.
Certainly, the core of the business remains its fine foodstuffs, from Joseph Schmidt truffles to Italian syrups, specialty jams to green chile salsas, oils and vinegars to gourmet coffees and teas. There are candies from Germany and licorice from Australia and Scharffen Berger chocolate bars from San Francisco. Aimee has also added a restaurant line, from Sonoma's renowned The Girl and the Fig restaurant, and greatly expanded the store's supply of local, New Mexican-produced products. Next, she plans to bring in a line of specialty salts, an unnecessarily maligned ingredient that she defends as "one of the most integral things to life."
In this age of expanded culinary awareness, Aimee and Jacob also envision a new role for Fremont's. "We want to encourage that awakening market which is growing tired of the mass production mentality that dominated the 80s and 90s," she says. "I think we're staying home and cooking more, eating with family, eating with friends, throwing dinner parties. I want to see that lifestyle thrive here and I want to provide the food and the education to support it, to teach people how food can be a wonderful part of their lives."
Eventually, that means using their show kitchen as a venue for cooking classes, demonstrations and even wine tastings. But first, they need to navigate the holiday season. To gear up, Aimee's brought in many more items, including one of the most extensive lines catering to their UK clientele, with crackers, traditional puddings and even pies.
Fremont's also offers one-of-a-kind custom crafted gift baskets that are perfect for individual or corporate gift giving. Customers can pre-select items or give Aimee a general idea and let her use her imagination.
Catering services are available as well. Items include homemade sandwich, fruit and vegetable trays, a Charcuterie Platter filled with assorted smoked and cured meats, pates, cheeses, cornichons and cherry tomatoes, a gourmet cheese and cracker tray and a basket of freshly baked breads.
And if you enter the store during the holiday season, you'll hear something new as well. Aimee and Jacob's two-year-old son, Christian Emil. "Yeah, we bring him in a lot," Aimee again laughs. "In fact, if you hear crying, it's probably him."
That makes a fourth generation raised at Fremont's. Of course, it's too early to tell if the business will be part of Christian Emil's own life path. For now, what matters to Aimee is something much more simple: the fact that her family not only perseveres, but thrives.
Fremont's Fine Foods is located at The Courtyard, Lower Level, 1100 San Mateo NE, Albuquerque. Phone: 505-792-3463. Fax: 505-897-1902.