America's Asian Markets Expand into Superstores

Article excerpt

Fidgety black catfish in oversized tanks greet supermarket customers at 99 Ranch Market, located in this industrial section of Hawaii.

Hiroshi Kobayashi, the supermarket's owner, unwraps a package filled with tiny slabs of mystery meat. "Duck tongue," he says, with obvious glee. "Bet you didn't know we had that."

Clearly, this is not your average supermarket. Yet 99 Ranch is one of several, booming Asian supermarket chains that are spreading across the United States, from Hawaii to Georgia, and on up to Canada. Borrowing a lesson from Western-style supermarket behemoths such as Costco, these Asian food chains have redesigned the traditional groceries of Chinatown into glossy superstores that target a predominantly suburban clientele. Behind the trend is the growing prosperity of many Asian- Americans, who have left their inner-city, ethnic neighborhoods for mainstream suburbs, and want a convenient outlet to buy their cultural foods. Once based predominantly in large Asian neighborhoods in California, these markets have become big business. Founded in 1984, Tawa Supermarkets, the California parent company of 99 Ranch, employs thousands and rakes in annual gross revenues in the hundreds of millions. The chains "have everything I want," says Angelina Summers, a Filipina pushing a shopping cart, loaded with two packets of pork snout and a wide-eyed toddler named Ashley. "Instead of going to Chinatown, this is so much more convenient," she adds. "And they have more - like the marinated meats. They usually only sell one style in Chinatown." The reception these stores receive often borders on pandemonium. When Mr. Kobayashi's store opened in March, it caused a one-hour traffic backup on a nearby freeway and upset government officials. …