The interior of the new Assi Natural market in Irvine boasts brushed stainless… (Christina House / For the…)
Assi Natural Market carries dozens of kimchi products. There are more than 200 kinds of dumplings. Its carts mimic the red and green of Sriracha sauce bottles.
All of which seems to indicate a pretty standard Asian grocery. But once it opens this month in Irvine, Assi aspires to be a hybrid of cultures — like the growing and increasingly moneyed population of second-generation Asian Americans it hopes to draw into its aisles.
The goal, manager Thomas Yoon said, is to become the Whole Foods of ethnic supermarkets.
Parent company Assi Super Inc. runs 19 stores in the U.S., including one in Los Angeles. But the Irvine market, which cost $10 million to pull together, is designed as a prototype that Assi Super hopes to eventually expand.
That means characteristics largely unheard of in Asian grocery stores, such as organic bok choy, eco-friendly reclaimed wood details, a glass-encased wine library and American fare at the food court.
Most competitors — including 99 Ranch Market, H-Mart and mom-and-pop outlets — sit next to boba stores, herb shops, Taiwanese pastry parlors and other Asian-centric businesses. Signage inside focuses on low prices and is rarely in English. Modestly decorated, crowded aisles often are infused with aromas from dumpling samples and the fresh fish counter.
The 35,000-square-foot Assi store, by contrast, shares the suburban Woodbridge Village Center shopping plaza with a plastic surgeon, a yoga studio, a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a movie theater. The complex overlooks a landscaped lagoon.
The interior is swathed in brushed stainless steel, recycled plywood, LED lights, low-chemical paint and polished concrete floors. A high-tech underground ventilation system sweeps away the pungent smell of black bean sauce. Boutique wines and specialty Asian spirits such as sake, soju and makgeolli will be housed in a spacious, clear display.
Produce — including Napa cabbage, cilantro and peppers displayed in wood cases inspired by Finnish grocery stores — will be organic. So will the dairy and eggs. Tofu too. The goods will largely be sourced from local farms Assi began acquiring in March 2012.
Some of the high-end meats, which will include Wagyu beef and free-range Jidori chicken, will be marinated in-house. They'll be displayed in front of an employee area fashionably modeled after open kitchens in upscale restaurants. The space, with an animal carcass artistically hung against a sterile backdrop, is visible through a wide glass screen.
The food court has a bakery, made-to-order sushi, pre-packaged lunches, even some American and Italian dishes made by a chef hired away from Whole Foods. Within reach of snacks such as chicken feet, there's a salad bar, a fruit bar and a juice bar.
Yoon took his Whole Foods admiration even further, going to great lengths to procure the same seafood distributor and checkout machines that the Austin, Texas, chain uses.
At its heart, though, Assi Natural Market is an Asian grocery.
The store is advertising its opening in Korean, Persian, Chinese and Vietnamese community news publications. A Korean makeup store and a ginseng shop will be set up on the outskirts of the store.
Its aisles will hold goods from 13 countries, including Vietnamese pho and Japanese udon, 50 kinds of rice and grains and 300 types of roasted seaweed. A shabu shabu section will slice meat to customers' specifications and offer other hot pot accouterments. In the produce aisle: dragon fruit and durian.
Counters, refrigerator handles and shelves are all 4 inches lower than in standard supermarkets to cater to Asians, who tend to be shorter than the average American, Yoon said.
Ethnic supermarkets are expected to keep growing at a 3.7% annual rate, reaching $31.2 billion in annual U.S. sales in 2016, according to research group IBISWorld. Thousands of new stores are expected to crop up nationwide in the next few years.
Executives expect Assi Natural Market in Irvine to pull in $20 million to $25 million in revenue a year.
The rebounding economy is one factor. But so are the burgeoning Latino and Asian populations, which represent 98.3% of ethnic supermarket sales. In five years, there will be 20.9 million Asian Americans in the U.S., up from 18.2 million in 2010, according to Nielsen.
Asian American buying power is up 523% since 1990, reaching $718.4 billion last year, according to Nielsen. Within five years, the figure is expected to top the $1-trillion mark.
Assi is aiming for a subset of that demographic: Asian American millennial shoppers ages 18 to 34. The group — unique for its higher income, technological savvy and socially conscious lifestyle — is interested in trying ethnic foods but wants to do so at stores that are more stylish than the ones its immigrant parents patronized.
To cater to such customers, Yoon has hired local, English-speaking high school and college students to help customers, collect runaway carts and operate cash registers. All signs are in English. To boost convenience for shoppers in a rush, the seafood department has a raw shrimp bar along with a steamer and fryer to cook purchases.
And shelves will carry some of the same groceries as mainstream supermarkets, down to Kraft cheese and pasta.
"Assi was losing money because all the new generation was going to Whole Foods, even though they were Korean and Chinese," Yoon said. "They have more options. So we're taking a lot of risk doing this."