By Stephen Vargha
Being an ecologically or environmentally responsible person is becoming more popular as climate change has become more evident, and our oceans get filled with plastics. Many people are trying to reduce their own adverse influence on ecology and the earth to the minimum.
A small shop on Hermano Miguel, in El Centro, is trying to make a huge impact on saving the planet and being responsible with the environment.
“We started with eco-friendly products, natural skin products, and natural essential oils,” said Gracie Yin, co-owner of Gracie’s Naturals. “Then we found more good products including natural cleaning products.”
“Gracie knows all of the products,” said Martin Zhang, co-founder of the store. He is also Gracie’s husband.
“From the beginning, we searched for natural products on Instagram,” said Martin. “We contacted them and had them ship their products to us. Most of the products are from Quito and Guayaquil.”
Her background and experience were perfect for the eco-friendly and health products store. Gracie grew up in Hubei province, situated in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. She moved to Shanghai for a one-year internship for general medicine at a huge general public hospital.
“After my internship, I went back to my university to get a degree in general medicine with an emphasis on ophthalmology and ENT,” said Gracie. “I went back to Shanghai for a job at a general public hospital as an ophthalmologist.”
After five years at the hospital, Gracie became involved with Expo 2010 Shanghai China, an international world’s fair. “I was transferred to the Bureau of Health as I could speak English,” said Gracie. “It was a six-month job.”
“I was a H.R. Manager in the Bureau of Health for the expo,” said Martin. “Because of my position, I met Gracie.” The two of them were married three years later and lived in Shanghai until 2015.
“That is when I went to the University of Queensland for a master’s degree in public health,” said Gracie. The Brisbane, Australia school is ranked among the world’s top 50 universities.
The plan was for Gracie to get a visa for the two of them to stay in Australia. After graduating from the university, Gracie had two part-time jobs for 18 months at a Brisbane dental clinic and at a health store.
“I started the applications in 2016. It took two years for the Australian government to decide,” said Gracie. “It was rejected.”
Despite being rejected, Gracie stayed in Brisbane for another six months while Martin remained in Shanghai. “She would call me every day crying. Gracie was so depressed not knowing if our appeal would go through,” said Martin. “I asked her to come back to Shanghai.”
It was the right call as Australia rejected the appeal. Gracie got a job at Delta Health Hospital Shanghai, with her last job at the private hospital being the Operations Manager in the In-Out Patient Department until May 2021.
“I quit my job because we wanted to live in another country. We did not want to live in China,” said Gracie. “We did our research online. Our first choice was Japan, but their requirements were very rigid.”
“Then we saw videos about Ecuador and decided to email Sara Chaca (a visas and citizenship attorney in Cuenca) for help to move to Ecuador,” said Martin.
Everything was in place by September 2019. Then came the 11 days of unrest and protests in October. “When the paro happened, I totally panicked. I emailed Sara to say it was a bad time,” said Martin. “Then Covid hit Wuhan, where Gracie was working.”
On January 23, 2020, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province in an effort to quarantine the center of an outbreak of Covid. A total of about 57 million people were affected, including Gracie.
“I went to see a doctor for three panic attacks because of what happened in Hubei province. I had lost the courage to move,” said Martin. “Gracie told me to not worry as it would end and then we could move.”
Seventy-six days later, the Wuhan lockdown officially ended, and Gracie and Martin were allowed to travel.
In May 2021, the Chinese couple was finally able to move to Ecuador. “We brought one large suitcase, one carry-on bag, and two backpacks. We thought we would go back to China to get more of our stuff,” said Martin. “It never happened as it was too expensive to do that. Besides, China closed its borders.”
Six months later, they opened their El Centro store. “When we came here, we wanted to learn Spanish. One day on the way to Spanish lessons, we saw a “For Rent” sign on a building on Hermano Miguel,” said Martin. “We immediately rented the place as we love El Centro. Besides, we live just down the street on Calle Larga.”
“We started with just four shelves with very few products,” said Gracie. “There were only about 30 items.”
Keeping in mind what their store was selling, the shop’s furniture, the logo on the wall, the counter, and the shelves, were made of recycled wood. “We hired a local carpenter who only uses recycled pallets to make our furniture,” said Gracie. “Then we found more good products, including natural cleaning products.”
With her medical background, Gracie is in charge of getting the natural products. Martin, with a master’s degree in Human Resources from Aston University in Birmingham, England, runs the business end.
Gracie said that she tries every product before it goes on the shelves. Her customers can do the same thing, including smelling every product. The goal is to have everything natural, healthy, sustainable, and eco-friendly.
What may be their most popular products involves their refill service. Customers can get disinfectant, detergent, liquid soap, shampoo, and toothpaste in bulk. Gracie’s Natural has four essential oils in bulk: eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, and tea tree.
“It is something people can reuse their containers. We have many customers who only come here for refills,” said Gracie. “It promotes a good lifestyle.”
The store has a mix of customers. Some are Ecuadorian and others are expats.
“It is one of the best places to get natural stuff,” said Hilary Overcash, who was originally from Rockwell, North Carolina. “It is beautifully displayed. And they are very kind and helpful.”
They were originally going to sell natural juices and drinks, but a curveball was thrown at them. “We bought what we thought was a refrigerator, but it was a freezer,” said Martin. “So now, we sell frozen natural and vegan products.”
That includes 95-gram vegetarian hamburger patties from Santiago, Chile. Martin says they are more affordable and taste better than the most popular vegetarian hamburger in the United States.
Other vegan products include tempeh, one reason Ram Goodman, who moved from Kansas City, is a regular customer. “I come here once or twice a week… sometimes more. There are times I just come by to say hi,” said Ram. “It is one of my favorite places to go to in Cuenca.”
Another reason for loyal customers is their prices. Martin is adamant to make it affordable to expats and Ecuadorians by keeping their profit margins low. One way is by buying mainly Ecuadorian. Imported items “cost way too much.”
There is also the concern for quality. “We don’t have any Chinese products,” Martin said. “We don’t trust them.”
Maybe even more important than all of that are their three principals of their store.
“We want to offer the best products with a reasonable profit,” said Martin. “You can help people with our products to have a better life.”
Gracie’s Naturals, Hermano Miguel 5-74 y Juan Jaramillo (next to Café de Ñucallacta), Cuenca, firstname.lastname@example.org, 2023 Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha