How Asian Grocery Stores Went from Niche to Mainstream
Image Credit - Dan Goldberg
20 June, 2024

How Asian Grocery Stores Went from Niche to Mainstream

A recent article by the New York Times explores how Asian grocery stores in the US have grown from small shops to nationwide chains over the last few decades. They have expanded beyond their original immigrant customer base, offering popular Asian foods like spicy Korean noodles to many Americans nowadays.


In the 1970s and 80s, stores like H Mart and Patel Brothers were small just born businesses and served local Asian communities, but over 40 years, they've transformed large well-known companies. As of 2024, H Mart has become a $2 billion company with 96 locations, Patel Brothers operates 52 stores across 20 states and 99 Ranch Market has 62 stores in 11 states.


Asian foods have become more common in the US thanks to these stores. They’ve introduced exotic ingredients like miso, turmeric, and soy sauce to many American households.


What made Asian grocery stores appeal to an average American customer? According to the New York Times, people have started to notice these stores thanks to some changes: wider aisles, better designs, bilingual signs, and people’s favorite - product sampling. This led to some ethnic switches in clients – about 30% of H Mart's customers aren't Asian.


The other factors are store offerings' variety and differences from regular supermarkets. Jill Connors, who shops at an Asian market in Iowa, says: "I find it fascinating that there are things on the shelf that I have no idea what they are."


Some people miss the old, smaller stores since they feel more personal. Toral Dalal, who used to shop at a small Indian store, says about Patel Brothers: "It feels like a chore, it is impersonal."


However, despite the changing customer base, Asian stores insist that Asian customers remain their main focus. Anuja Ranade from India Bazaar says: "It is about the feeling of being home when they walk into my store." They keep traditional elements like the smell of spices and bilingual employees.


The success of Asian grocery chains has helped smaller, more specialized Asian stores to open. Lisa Cheng Smith, who owns a Taiwanese store, says they are building on the work that 99 Ranch has done before.


For many people, these stores are still places to meet and socialize. Mary Anne Amper, who lives in New York, plans trips to H Mart as a way to reconnect with her friends.


According to the NYT article, Asian grocery stores have become an important part of American food culture. They've introduced new flavors to many Americans while still serving their Asian communities. As Kat Lieu, a cookbook author, puts it: "In an Asian grocery store I feel like a queen. If I see a confused white person, I am like, 'That's the best soy sauce.'"