Written by Punya Wijetunge | Utica Phoenix Columnist
When “Sunny” Aung Win, came to the U.S., way back in 1999, all he dreamed of was expanding his horizons in studies. Being a son of a doctor and a school teacher, Sunny knew the cost of not being able to have a good education. But fate hit him right at his face before he even started his journey. He and his three friends were deserted by a relative who promised him to get a college education.
Sunny knew nothing in the U.S., and the $1,500 he brought with him didn’t last long in New York City either. Young Sunny had to survive, so he started doing odd jobs in the city. From laundromats to construction work, he did it all. That was until one day he heard a passer-by speaking in Burmese and his journey began…
With a very friendly personality, Sunny didn’t take long to make friends and doors began to open up. Soon he learned the art of making sushi from a friend and became a sushi chef.
In 2012, a Burmese entrepreneur in Ithaca called him and told him that he wanted him to work for them. Sunny hopped on the Greyhound and headed north. The Ithaca AFC company taught him how to perfect his craft.
Sunny said that 2006 brought many refugees from Myanmar (Burma). Sunny missed his community. Being by himself, missing his family was imminent, and Sunny came to Utica. He met Huiu Htwe, a perfect life partner and they got married. In 2007 Huiu and Sunny started selling sushi. In the year 2009, they opened a sushi bar at the New Hartford, Hannaford Bros. supermarket. The same year, Huiu gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, they named him MIN HTET WIN, meaning “To Win Higher.” Two years later his wife gave birth to his second baby. This time, a girl.
Later, Sunny realized the one thing Burmese people were missing most after coming to the U.S. — their authentic Burmese cuisine. He thought that if he could get a package of Lepaheto Mix from Myanmar, he could start a small business. So he got a friend to ship him tea leaves and “Lepaheto Mix.” And boy, did his people love his Lepaheto Mix. (Lepaheto is a salad made with tea leaves, beans, cabbage, and tomatoes. )
Sunny studied other oriental stores, and how they ran their businesses in Utica. He befriended the truck drivers who brought vegetables from New York City to these stores and slowly learned the trade.
Later, he opened another business. A small store at 620 Albany Street. His sister in law, Maria Met, helped with his business. He didn’t have a lot of space in this locality, so he stored his products in his home basement. He went to New York City to get the veggies himself, but it was pretty hard. He knew one thing: hard work pays off. There were many sleepless nights and longer days. But he didn’t give up. He found vendors, loaded the truck, drove back and forth on Thursdays bringing vegetables to his store.
He soon realized he was attracting a lot of customers — not only Burmese but a lot of other South Asians too. He saw what they missed. He wanted to sell them other stuff too. Not just grocery items. Small appliances like rice cookers, clothes, pots, pans, cosmetics, and toiletries South Asians were fond of. He saw how well he can tap into the market.
He saw this as a lucrative business opportunity and saw the need to expand. In the year 2014, he opened his store in South Street and named it after his first born, “Min Htet Win.” This was a much bigger store, more like a small supermarket.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., just like everyone else, Sunny had to close his doors on his customers. But he knew his business was not going to go away. He planned to restructure. Once the businesses were allowed to resume, Sunny was more than ready. Ready to serve his people. And now he is giving more employment opportunities to his people. Eight people work for him.
But when I came to interview him, he looked like someone who didn’t change his personality after being a successful entrepreneur. I didn’t see a boss! I saw a hard worker in a paint splattered shirt, with a humble smile. Someone who is always there for his people and his family.
We wish Sunny and his family continued success in Utica, as he continues to serve Utica and his community.
Min Htet Win Oriental Market is located at 115 South Street in Utica. You can reach them by phone at (315) 732-9990. They are also available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063898126209. Hours of operation are Sunday – Saturday 9 AM – 7 PM.