By Elisa Garcia and Sungjai Lee
Statements from Han Kil Sone have been translated from Korean to English.
On Feb. 15, H Mart, a Korean Supermarket, opened its first chain in Northwest Austin and less than a month later, 99 Ranch Market, an Asian market, made its local debut in Highland on Airport and North Lamar Boulevard. The opening of the two grocery chains makes Austin the home to two of the country’s biggest and best-known Asian grocers – which is a big deal for those that never lived in Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
In 2012, non-restaurant sales of Asian foods topped $1.5 billion, according to market-research firm Mintel Group. Despite this, the rate of growth is expected to fall, but sales of Asian foods are likely to keep rising, according to The Economist.
Asian supermarkets are becoming more mainstream in the U.S. due to the wide selection of food from all over Asia, according to CGTN America.
99 Ranch Market was established in 1984, with its first store in Westminster (also known as “Little Saigon”), California. According to its website, it has grown to become the largest Asian supermarket chain in the U.S., with over 50 store locations nationwide.
H Mart, short for “Han Ah Reum,” which translates to “One Arm Full of Groceries,” started in 1982 in Queens, New York. H Mart did not appear in Texas until 2008, in Houston and Carrollton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Today, there are five H Marts in the state, with a sixth coming to Katy, Texas this summer.
According to H Mart General Manager Han Kil Sone, the massive supermarket currently has one aisle dedicated to Indian cuisine and an American deli.
“Hmart is international,” he said. “We don’t care what items our customers want. Anything, whatever you want, we have it. In multiple aspects, in whatever way we can, we are trying to satisfy the needs of our customers.”
Addie Broyles, food blogger for the Austin American-Statesman, said in a 2018 blog post for Austin 360, the debuts of H Mart and 99 Ranch Market were the “biggest grocery openings since Whole Foods’ 365 or even when Trader Joe’s first opened in Central Texas in 2013.”
Although H Mart is housed in a huge, 68,670-square-foot space that used to be a Sports Authority and Bed Bath & Beyond, the store is packed elbow-to-elbow.
Infographic by Sungjai Lee (Map not to scale)
With the rise and popularity of Asian grocers, competition is heating up between Asian markets, according to a 2015 The Baltimore Sun article.
Currently, there are seven Asian-inspired restaurants within a mile of H Mart, but Sone doesn’t believe anyone should look at it as a competition. He said the entire plaza is H Mart property, which allows them to grow corporately and expand together.
“We are trying really hard to make this into an Asian town,” Sone said. “After the opening of the Carrollton H Mart, a bunch of restaurants and shops opened up and moved toward Carrollton. And now Carrollton is known as the Asian town. Similarly, we want to do that here.”
For Carlynn Hickenbotham, a University of Texas at Austin and Asian cuisine foodie, she believes the opening of both H Mart and 99 Ranch Market will expand Austin’s food scene.
“Living in Texas, it’s kind of hard to find excellent Asian food,” she said. “I think because there isn’t a huge amount of Asian-Americans in Texas like there are in places like California or New York.”
Although Hickenbotham enjoys the Asian cuisine in Austin, she said there is room for more diversity.
“There are so many types of Asian food that Austin doesn’t have a lot of, like dim sum or Malaysian food, and I would really enjoy if there could be even more of that,” she said.
Asian restaurants and markets continue to pop up because of the health benefits. According to Livestrong.com, Asian cuisine typically favors steaming or stir frying compared to deep frying.
As stated in Mochi Magazine, an online quarterly magazine that aims to empower young Asian-American women, an Asian diet is “inherently healthier” due to the common cooking ingredients and food products such as white rice, soy and tea.
Asian diets mostly contain foods lower in carbohydrates and cholesterol. Sweets and processed foods are rarely eaten in Asia, as fruits usually suffice as dessert.
With H Mart a little over a month old, Sone said they are planning to have over 20 stores in Texas, with a small location near UT campus.
“[H Mart] is not only focused on Asians; it’s an international experience and culture we want to provide for the public.”