Asian food markets in the U.S. are thriving, as they serve a growing number of diverse customers. VOA's June Soh produced the story. It's narrated by Crystal Park.
Dong Jung, a college student from Korea, shops at Lotte Plaza, an Asian supermarket, in Baltimore, Maryland.
"I came here (U.S) five years ago. I miss a lot of Korean food and Asian food every day. So ( I ) come here to shop Korean food and kimchi, sushi, a lot of stuff."
Han Kim goes to one of the Lotte chain stores in Fairfax, Virginia. He has been in the U.S. more than 30 years.
"I still miss a lot of Korean food. I really like it."
"When I came here first time in 1968, the price was really expensive and (there were) not many (Asian) stores. Nowadays (it is) really cheap and (there are) a lot of competitive stores we really like."
The bustle of this warehouse of Rhee Bros. Inc, an Asian food wholesaler and distributor based in Columbia, Maryland, speaks volumes about the changes in the US retail grocery business.
Syng Man Rhee, a Korean immigrant, is the founder.
SYNG MAN RHEE
"I started in 1976 as a small wholesaler in Silver Spring, Maryland. After that I moved to this warehouse, now this main warehouse is 165,000 square feet ( more than 18,000 square meters), another extra three warehouses around here, all together maybe 350,000 square feet (almost 40,000 square meters). "
Rhee Bros. also has nine of its own retail outlets called Assi or Lotte Plaza and it also distributes to 1,500 supermarkets across the U.S. Many of its 10,000 items are imported but it has its own brands too. This year Rhee Bros. expects to reach 500 million dollars in revenue. Rhee says he never expected expansion on this scale.
SYNG MAN RHEE
"I have never thought about that. But I want to say I wanted to make it bigger but not like that."
Within the Asian grocery business, competition is fierce. Just in the Washington suburban areas there are several chain stores on a large scale such as Super H Mart, Han Ah Reum, Grand Mart, Global Market and Lotte.
The phenomenal growth reflects a demographic sea change.
The Asian and Pacific Islanders population in the U.S. increased from 3.7 million in 1980 to 13 million in 2004 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While most of the Asian grocery chains are owned by Korean immigrants, they also cater to South Asians like these two customers from India and Pakistan.
"There are a variety of fresh vegetables, which I can't get anywhere else. And they assorted ethnic food that I can find here."
"Most of seafood we buy from here. We cannot find them in American stores. Some grocery like eastern food, we buy from here."
The general American public is also exploring new tastes. Netta Warren of Ellicott city, Maryland started to shop at Lotte Plaza on a friend's recommendation.
"They have a big selection. Things I don't know about. So I am going to learn about them because it's healthy and tastes good."
David DeRengis from Dorsey, Maryland has eaten Asian food for over 35 years.
"I love it. I love Asian food. All kinds of. I guess Japanese and Thai are my favorite since I was stationed in both of those countries."
Even Mainstream supermarket chains dedicate more shelf space to ethnic foods.
Barry Scher is vice president of public affairs for Giant Foods Inc.
"The growth of ethnic foods in our stores has been phenomenal. Even five years ago we had nowhere near various wide of verity of products we are selling in our stores today."
Syng Man Rhee credits the growth of his industry to the developing new products, and improving the quality of food and service; all designed to appeal to America's changing tastes.