As riots raged through Liberty City in spring 1980, George Yap's crayon-yellow warehouse was spared. But it wasn't a miracle. More than a half-dozen employees from Yap's bean sprout factory, many of them former drug addicts and ex-convicts who lived in a neighboring halfway house, stood outside the front gate. "They told them to burn somewhere else, not here," the now-75-year-old, Kingston, Jamaica-born Yap says.
His company, Leasa Industries Inc. (2450 NW 76th St., Miami), is nearing its 40th anniversary. He sells nearly 80,000 pounds of sprouts — onion, alfalfa, spicy, and kale — annually. Many of them end up on the shelves of your neighborhood Publix, as well as in stores throughout the Caribbean and Alaska.
Yap began hiring people from the neighborhood to grow and package his dozen varieties of sprouts almost from the beginning. "I had a white salesman who I sent down to Key West with a shipment, and he disappeared with my truck and my money," Yap says. The next day, he asked a man walking down the street if he wanted a job. "I think I scared him," Yap says. "I don't think he ever saw a Chinese person before, and inside the warehouse, he thought we were growing marijuana."
Though Yap's sales these days surpass $10 million annually, he couldn't have come from a humbler background. In Jamaica, he was a sickly child who never graduated from high school. As a kid, he sold prepared meals of roast pork and rice to Chinese shopkeepers. Eventually, he found success in vending and slot machines. But when political upheaval roiled the island in the 1970s, he lost his business and fled.
He arrived in Miami in 1976 with a mere $50 in his pocket. He would go on to lose tens of thousands of dollars trying to launch his sprout business out of a 200-square-foot cinderblock house in Kendall.
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A few lifesaving loans and guidance from a United Nations scientist and a Taiwanese manufacturer helped turn things around. Now he presides over a sprawling complex filled with massive refrigerated storage containers where fields of sprouts are grown and packed. Workers in antiseptic rooms sport
Not all of his hires have been stellar successes, but many are devoted. Forty-nine-year-old Steven Young once worked for Yap but is serving a life sentence for multiple counts of armed robbery. "Mr. Yap, you've been like a father to me," he wrote in a 2010 letter from prison. "You sent me $250, and I will pay you every dime that I owe. That's why I want to come back to Leasa."