Don’t call it an ‘ethnic’ grocery store

Asian grocery stores are no longer niche businesses. They are a cultural phenomenon.

Last year, Americans bought a half a billion packets of Shin Ramyun, the spicy, beefy Korean instant noodle. The bold red-and-black packaging feels inescapable: It’s a staple of college dorm rooms, bodegas, middle-of-the-country Walmarts and viral TikTok videos.

But 30 years ago, the noodles were largely unknown in the United States. No grocery store would stock them, said Kevin Chang, the director of marketing for Nongshim, Shin Ramyun’s parent company. Except, that is, for a few small Korean grocers, including a fledgling shop called H Mart in the Queens borough of New York City.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, as Asian immigration to the United States soared, grocers like H Mart; Patel Brothers, an Indian grocery founded in Chicago; and 99 Ranch Market, originally focused on foods from China and Taiwan, started in Westminster, California, opened to meet the demand for ingredients that tasted like home. These were tiny mom-and-pop shops in suburban strip malls or outer boroughs with large Asian immigrant populations. They weren’t fancy, but they were vital to their communities.

Now, those same shops have transformed into sleekly designed chains with in-store roti machines, mobile ordering apps and locations across the country — all aiming to serve the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and the millions of others who now crave flavors like Shin Ramyun, chili crisp, chaat masala and chai.

The H Mart of today is a $2 billion company with 96 stores and a namesake book (the best-selling memoir “Crying in H Mart,” by musician Michelle Zauner). Last month, the chain purchased an entire shopping center in San Francisco for $37 million. Patel Brothers has 52 locations in 20 states, with six more stores planned in the next two years. 99 Ranch opened four new branches just last year, bringing its reach to 62 stores in 11 states. Weee!, an online Asian food store, is valued at $4.1 billion.

Asian grocery stores are no longer niche businesses: They are a cultural phenomenon.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leila Ishigaki works as a cashier during the grand opening of H Mart, a new Asian grocery store chain, in West Jordan on Friday, June 7, 2024.

Turning Specialties Into Staples

Despite their recent growth, Asian American grocers still represent less than 1% of the total U.S. grocery business, which is dominated by retailers such as Kroger and Walmart, said Dymfke Kuijpers, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey who specializes in retail. But these stores exercise an outsize impact, she said, as they dictate which products the big-box chains stock.

Americans have become deeply enamored with Asian flavors: From April 2023 to April 2024, sales of items in the “Asian/ethnic aisle” in U.S. grocery stores grew nearly four times more than overall sales, according to data analytics company Circana. And more than any restaurant, cookbook or online video, Asian grocers are driving this shift.

“They are the vanguard of mainstreaming,” said Errol Schweizer, who was the vice president of grocery at Whole Foods Market from 2009-16. Miso, ghee, turmeric, soy sauce — their journeys to becoming widely available pantry staples all began with an Asian grocer.

“Without Asian grocery stores, it is extremely hard to get into the mainstream market,” said Chang, from Nongshim. They make accessible those ingredients that people grew up with, ate in a restaurant or saw online, he said. Brian Kwon, the president of H Mart, said he’s used to seeing employees from major grocers show up at one of his stores and note down which brands are available.

But H Mart is attracting the clientele of the big grocers, too. Thirty percent of its shoppers today are non-Asian, Kwon said, and he’s made changes to continue drawing them as the company expands into areas with smaller Asian populations — placing more emphasis on in-store tastings, explaining how ingredients are used and posting signs in both Korean and English. Similarly, at 99 Ranch, the announcements ring out in Mandarin and English, and Western music has been added to the store playlists.

Swetal Patel, a partner at Patel Brothers, said that as the chain has expanded its audience — he estimates that 20% to 25% of shoppers are now non-South Asian — stores now look more like a Whole Foods, with wide aisles and glass windows. “It is not your mom and dad’s Indian grocery store anymore.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) H Mart employee Sue Jarrett prepares samples for customers during the grand opening of H Mart, a new Asian grocery store chain, in West Jordan on Friday, June 7, 2024.

‘The Feeling of Being Home’

Even as many Asian grocers have adapted to their changing customer bases, they insist that the communities that got them started remain top of mind.

At the Dallas-based chain India Bazaar, for example, organic lentils are on offer, and the bhakri is labeled gluten free — tweaks that not only help bring in non-South Asians, but also keep the store relevant for second-generation South Asians, said Anuja Ranade, the chief operating officer.

South Asians will always be the priority, said Ranade, even as store design or product packaging might evolve.

“It is about the feeling of being home when they walk into my store,” she said. The shops still smell of spices and the employees speak various South Asian dialects and wish customers a happy Diwali — “because when you go to Walmart, they say, ‘Merry Christmas! Happy Thanksgiving!’”

That authenticity is precisely the appeal for many non-Asian customers as well.

“I find it fascinating that there are things on the shelf that I have no idea what they are,” said Jill Connors, an economic development director for the city of Dubuque, Iowa, who started shopping at Hornbill Asian Market this year because she and her husband became vegan and wanted high-quality tofu at a reasonable price.

These chains have also paved the way for more regionalized Asian grocery stores, like the Taiwanese shop Yun Hai in Brooklyn or Sua Superette, a Sichuan marketplace in Los Angeles — both run by second-generation Asian Americans.

“We are building on the work that previous people, like 99 Ranch, have done before,” said Lisa Cheng Smith, the founder of Yun Hai. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to go to this next level of specialization.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.