"It's clean, it's close to my work, and there is a lot of choice," says the Baldwin Park resident.
Jonathan Ziegler, a supermarket analyst with Salomon Bros. in San Francisco, calls 99 Ranch "a very clever concept."
In the ethnic-food market, "there's room for a sophisticated operation," Ziegler says. Chen "is trying to create a one-stop shopping, attractive environment for the customer."
Chen is always looking for ways to continue to upgrade his business. One recent day, he sat in the conference room of his Buena Park corporate headquarters and discussed his company.
In the center of the conference table sat a floral centerpiece for Chinese New Year brimming with silk flowers and dollar bills folded into the shape of butterflies--for good luck. A Chinese scroll hung from the wall, admonishing that "Honesty is the most important virtue."
Chen explained that he first started coming to Southern California in the late 1970s to import U.S. cars for the Taiwanese market and found it a good environment with excellent schools to raise his children, now 22, 19 and 17.
He moved his family over in 1983, lived in Fountain Valley for a while and then eventually settled in Anaheim Hills. Chen tried exporting cars and computers to Taiwan but grew frustrated by the heavy competition. He didn't speak English well and couldn't get a job here, despite having graduated from the elite Taiwan University.
Then came the idea for a supermarket. Unable to obtain a bank loan--Chen didn't even have a credit card back then--he and a partner ransacked their savings and investments to come up with nearly $1 million.
"The banks wanted to see business experience, to prove that we could run a supermarket, which I didn't have," Chen explains.
With that nest egg, they opened the 16,000-square-foot Man Wah Supermarket in Westminster in 1984, displaying thousands of traditional Asian food products in a Western supermarket style that featured gleaming aisles, neon signs, appealingly packaged foods, electronic inventory control and efficient service.
A second Westminster supermarket, 99 Price Market, followed a year later and launched the brand name that Chen would use for all his future stores, since 99 is considered a lucky number among Taiwanese.
But they learned as they went. The partners imported about 40% of the food and lined up local suppliers for the balance. They schooled themselves on Food and Drug Administration regulations and on local health ordinances.
In the beginning, for instance, Chen didn't realize that meat, fish and eggs had to be refrigerated, not just stacked on ice as they are back home. "At that time, I was still Asian-minded. But [government agencies] knew we were new. They gave us a chance because they realized we didn't know."
Chen's wife worked as cashier, accountant and administrator to help out. The store flourished. Five months into the venture, Chen bought out his partner's share in the supermarket.
By the time he asked Union Bank for a loan to open a second store in 1986, Chen could hand over business receipts proving his success. The bank anted up.
That loan helped fund the 99 Price Market in a Westminster shopping center that Chen developed in partnership with Frank Jao, a legendary immigrant who built most of Little Saigon.
Jao recalls meeting Chen in the late 1970s.
"He came to Bolsa Avenue [the main thoroughfare of Little Saigon], looked around, found my company and approached me to talk about real estate investments, the economy and the growth of the Asian immigrant population," Jao says. "We seemed to have the right chemistry.
"I was impressed with his intelligence and his analytical mind when we discussed returns on investment. He had all the numbers laid out very fast, faster than I could put them on paper."
At that time, Chen knew little about real estate, but in partnership with Jao--already a successful developer--he converted an industrial park of 100,000 square feet into a profitable retail center anchored by his supermarket.
Jao and Chen, who remain good friends, went on to build half a dozen more centers, including the two-story, enclosed Asian Garden Mall, the beating retail heart of Orange County's Vietnamese community.
The 99 Ranch Markets grew apace as increasing numbers of Chinese immigrated here. The chain quickly opened stores in Rowland Heights, Montebello and Anaheim.
Tawa also began manufacturing and stocking 300 food products under its own brand names in the 99 Ranch Markets. The products included cooking oil, chicken broth, noodles, fruits and vegetables.
Today, Chen is exporting the 99 Ranch Market concept outside Southern California because he says the market here is saturated, tastes are changing and there are many competitors. His development division, founded in 1992, is helping to build supermarket plazas from Atlanta to Toronto, Las Vegas to San Jose--almost anywhere with an Asian population to sustain a store. Atlanta, for instance, has nearly 100,000 residents of Asian descent, Chen says.