COSTA MESA — A Japanese megamarket has opened in Orange County, offering upscaleAsian shoppers everything from fresh Oriental pears flown in from Tokyo to fine teas and late-model electric rice cookers.
Japanese expatriates can choose from among 17 brands of natto , a pungent fermented soybean paste eaten with rice for breakfast. They can rent the latest hit Japanese videos (no English subtitles). Or, thanks to the time difference and satellite technology, they can pick up today's editions of the top three Japanese newspapers.
The 35,000-square-foot Yaohan supermarket complex, complete with underground parking garage, opened on Paularino Avenue on Dec. 9.
It isn't just an imitation of the posh food boutiques found in the basement of upscale Japanese department stores. It's the real thing--with prices to match. Fussy shoppers can buy Japanese brands of ketchup in soft, squeezable bottles, 17.6 ounces for $3.99. For bargain hunters, 28 ounces of American ketchup across the aisle cost 99 cents.
"Expensive. It's definitely expensive," said Yayoi Ichinoki, a Yokohama native now living in Mission Viejo, as she picked out a fresh cut of sashimi tuna chunks.
"But it's the 'mother's taste,' " she added, using a colloquial Japanese expression roughly translated as \o7 the way Mom used to make it.\f7
A food court with six restaurants is attracting a growing non-Asian lunch trade. That comes as good news to executives, who say there probably are not yet enough Japanese in Orange County to support both the new supermarket complex and their smaller grocery competitors. They are banking on drawing Chinese, Korean and Filipino shoppers, and hoping Americans will come as well.
But the biggest competitor, the Ebisu Market in Fountain Valley, is bracing for a hard fight. It has opened a noodle shop in a bid to keep its shoppers, 90% of whom are Japanese, from straying.
"It's going to be like a price war," said Joe Takeda, who manages the 10,000-square-foot, family owned Ebisu store, which has been in business 13 years. Takeda said he saw a dip in sales--which average $350,000 per month--in the first few weeks after Yaohan opened.
Now, Takeda sniffs, "People are starting to find out that they're more expensive. It's coming back to normal again."
The Costa Mesa store is the sixth Yaohan supermarket to open in the United States since 1979, said Noriyoshi Miyata, assistant administration manager at Yaohan U.S.A. Corp. headquarters in Los Angeles.
The Japanese conglomerate owns 113 retail outlets in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Brunei and Hong Kong, where it is headquartered, Miyata said. Its U.S. stores are in Japanese enclaves in Edgewater, N.J., Fresno, San Jose, Torrance and Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. The chain projects U.S. sales of $115 million in 1990, Miyata said.
Last week, Yaohan announced plans to build a $100-million complex with a 250-room Japanese-style hotel, an athletic club and an indoor golf range near its Edgewater store, designed to cater to Asian business executives, Miyata said.
There are no up-to-date estimates of the number of Japanese in Orange County. The 1980 census showed 20,000 people of Japanese descent in the county, and 14,500 of Chinese descent. According to Miyata, a 1985 survey counted 146,000 Asians, but did not specify to which ethnic group they belonged.
"I'm sure there's a substantial increase in the last five years," Miyata said. "A lot of Japanese companies have located their headquarters in Orange County, and other Asian populations are growing, too."
The Costa Mesa store, with its immaculate displays and wide variety of costly imports, is clearly meant to appeal to a growing, affluent population of Japanese in nearby Irvine.
Store manager Yoshinobu Koga boasts of a selection that exceeds those of some Japanese supermarkets.
The green grocery section stocks between 150 and 200 produce items, including hard-to-find fresh Asian vegetables grown in California, six types of tofu and a large selection of fish and seafood. Last week the clams were so fresh they squirted a shopper.
There is also a dazzling array of 42 kinds of prepackaged pickles, in addition to a pickle counter with dozens of fresh imported and domestic varieties. A pickle vendor offered toothpicks and invited skeptical Americans to sample the familiar yellow \o7 takuan\f7 radish, along with more exotic pickled eggplant and pink pickled garlic cloves.
"Try them please, honorable customer," she said in Japanese, bobbing her head toward the latter. "They do not produce bad breath."
A few feet away, in the Maeda-En specialty tea store, a kimono-clad woman used a bamboo ladle to pour steaming water over fragrant green leaves.
Fruits are individually packaged in plastic wrap, in keeping with the Japanese tradition of making food look as attractive as possible.
"Japanese food, you don't eat it by the taste," explained the domestic grocery manager, George Nagano. "You eat it with your eye."