Michael Fong’s high-energy personality is captivating. His simple no-nonsense approach for the future of Imperial Valley’s Northend is hard to debate.
“You simply can’t build a community without pride of ownership,” said Fong. “Calipatria is slowly sinking because the political scene has done nothing to stimulate that pride. Our city manager has done nothing. Our politicians have no vision to foster growth. Each of us has to invest in our community in some fashion, small or large for it to survive.”
As way of introduction, Michael Fong built and owns Market Square Grocery in Calipatria. He also owns Got Ice Company, which he opened 12 years ago.
“I believe diversification in business is important,” said Fong, “and working side-by-side with my employees wherever I’m needed.”
But Fong wasn’t handed the success he enjoys today. He comes from meager beginnings growing up in Niland where his mother and father, Gene and Mei, operated United Food Center Grocery. When Fong was 15 years old, working in the store after school, he witnessed the death of his father suffering from a massive heart attack.
“It was tragic,” remembers Fong. “My older sister took charge as my mother really knew little about running things. At that time my mother didn’t even speak English. But these were the days before the big chain stores and the Imperial Valley Grocery Alliance stepped up and kept the store operating by rotating people in and out to help. Arabella Butler of Westmorland Food Market taught my mom how to do the books and speak English. Talk about neighbors helping neighbors.”
The family business in Niland survived. Young Michael graduated high school and was able to attend Cal Poly Pomona graduating with a degree in business administration. He married and at 23 years old was able to gain the confidence of those around him to build the Market Square Grocery in Calipatria.
Fong is first to admit much of his success is due to the emotional support of his wife, Herminia.
“I can’t begin to tell you how amazing my wife is,” says Fong. “She graduated from San Diego State and has taught school here in Calipatria for 20 years. Back in the day I was an extremely high-energy guy. I worked literally every day of the week for three years straight with the exception of Christmas Day.
“I’m still blown away by how she dealt with me the first five years of our marriage,” Fong laughs out loud. “I was a maniac back then working day and night. But here I am, a little older, a little wiser and Herminia is the absolute love of my life.”
But Fong’s work ethic isn’t unique to his generation. The fact is that the Niland/Calipatria High School class of 1987 was an exceptional group of young people. From this small community more than a third of that class received college degrees. Many returned and gave back to the community. This was truly a class with high achievers with driven desires.
“We were all pretty competitive,” says Fong. “That’s what’s so great about this country. You can be whatever you want to be. To achieve you simply need a hunger and fire inside.”
Fong believes strongly in mentoring youths. He contributes by coaching at the high school and hires students to work in the store. When he observed there were people in the community without the necessary capital to build a building but the capital to invest in a business, Fong’s solution was to build a Retail Commercial Center where new businesses could develop.
“The unfortunate thing is that our City Fathers didn’t have the vision to capitalize on this during the housing boom like El Centro did,” states Fong. “With stronger political leadership, less-expensive housing tracks could have flooded the Northend and encouraged growth out here. Today many people would own, not rent, and that’s where that pride of ownership comes in. Instead, we have vacant land supporting nothing but tumbleweeds. Don’t get me started,” he said.
Most recently, Fong stepped down from the school board after serving 12 years yet is still strongly engaged in north county affairs. He and fellow businessman Luis Zendejas of Zendejas True Value Hardware share similar concerns with regard to the future of both Calipatria and Niland. Fong’s sister Kathy is married to Luis’ son, Chris Zendejas. She still continues to run the United Food Center Grocery in Niland along with her mother Mei.
Fong and Herminia have two sons, Jalen attending Arizona State, Kevin in junior high school.
“I grew up with values that I’ve tried to instill in my sons,” said Fong. “My mother taught me that if you make $10, save $3. Never live above your means. Never live as though you’re bigger than you really are. I eat that humble pie every day. Herminia and I are on the same page and each year our relationship grows stronger. I would never have experienced the success I’ve had if not for her. She has truly been my rock and deserves credit for everything good in my life. I truly love her with all my heart.”