Variety the spice of markets' life
Valley's appetite for ethnic foods growing

By Yvette Armendariz
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 26, 2002

When Mesa salesman Anthony Clarke is in the mood for Asian or Caribbean foods, he heads for Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket.

"I like a lot of seafood, and they have a lot of fish," Clarke said as he filled his shopping cart.

A friend recently introduced him to the grocery store, known to many as the king of ethnic foods in the Valley.

"They have a wide range of stuff for different cultures," Clarke said, adding that he is from the Caribbean. "I feel at home here."

Lee Lee isn't alone trying to cater to the Valley's growing appetite for ethnic foods. General supermarkets are expanding ethnic-food aisles and smaller, niche stores are opening to offer hard-to-find food staples.

Sales in the "emerging ethnic food" market, excluding sales at Wal-Mart, totaled $799.6 million nationwide in 2001, up 41 percent from $568.9 million in 1996, according to a June report by Mintel Consumer Intelligence, a research firm in Chicago. That includes foods from Japan and other Asian countries, but doesn't include Chinese, Indian or Middle Eastern foods. The Chinese market adds an additional $309 million.

The category is small compared with the Mexican-food market, estimated at $4 billion in sales, but the Asian market is growing strong primarily because of improving recognition of other cultures and manufacturers' willingness to produce frozen and prepared Asian foods, the Mintel report states. Strong sales growth in Asian foods is anticipated through 2006.

Grocery chains such as Safeway and Albertsons say they add variety to their ethnic-food sections based on the surrounding demographics and consumer demand.

"The popularity of ethnic foods has expanded the selection in our food stores," said Anita Cohen, a Safeway spokeswoman.

In Maricopa County, Asian-Americans represent about 3 percent of the population, or more than 94,000 people, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2001. In 2000, the Asian-American population was about 2.7 percent of the population, or nearly 82,000 people.

Most Asian-food stores in the Valley are small, locally owned shops specializing in one or two Asian cultures. Chandler-based Lee Lee and 99 Ranch Market break that tradition.

Lee Lee is 52,000 square feet and carries a wide variety of cuisines, including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Caribbean, Filipino and Indian. Mainstream Asian foods, such as soy sauces and bamboo shoots, can be found there along with chicken feet, Chinese sausage, shark fin and duck eggs. The store is at Dobson and Warner roads.

Another staple of the Asian market is live fish, considered very important to Asian cooking and culture. Lee Lee and 99 Ranch Market offer live fish, lobsters and crabs.

Started in Westminister, Calif., 99 Ranch Market has expanded its reach to more than 20 stores in that state, one in Washington and others in Nevada and Hawaii.

The Arizona store is 30,000 square feet and brims with a variety of Asian cuisines. It recently began carrying fresh eel, manager Jamie Banh said.

The store has seen its customer base grow significantly since opening inside the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix five years ago, he said.

Chandler filmmaker and actor Ty Ng said he regularly goes to Lee Lee for spices and specialty foods, such as turtle jell, not easily found at general supermarkets.

"They were a little hole in the wall" in 1994, Ng said. "I moved here from L.A., and by chance around the corner was Lee Lee, so I didn't have to go back to L.A. to get my Asian cuisine."

Meng Truong, owner of Lee Lee, opened a 2,000-square-foot store in 1990 because specialty foods were hard to find in the Valley.

"We opened for the community. We wanted to take care of customers," said Truong, who escaped from Cambodia 21 years ago.

Truong was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of his mother, who had operated a trucking company and distributed rice and beans.

The store originally offered 60 percent Asian foods and 40 percent general-market items, but that quickly changed.

"We lost money on that, so we stick with international stuff," Truong said.

The business soon expanded to 8,000 square feet, but outgrew that, too. In 1999, Truong moved it into the 52,000-square-foot store, which had housed a MegaFoods.

The new location has attracted customers.

About 20 percent of his sales are to Anglos. About 85 percent of the products sold have some English translation, a marketing effort Truong said is important to expanding his customer base.

"If they can't read it, they don't buy it," he said.

Barry Wong, a Phoenix lawyer and former legislator, sees the Asian markets becoming more mainstream. His father operated the New Moon Market in south Phoenix for 34 years before selling it.

"Because of their limited proficiency in English, it was common (for Chinese immigrants) to enter into businesses that required limited English, such as retail stores, liquor stores and restaurants," Wong said.

The next generation didn't necessarily get involved in the family business, but a new generation -often from other Asian countries such as Korea, Thailand and Vietnam - replaced those stores, he said.

Now the newer breed of stores caters to growing demand for foods of Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian cultures.

For example, Asiana Market, owned by Thomas Yoon, is attempting to gain customers seeking Korean and Japanese food.

The 9,000-square-foot store, in the old Lee Lee spot on Southern Avenue and Dobson in Mesa, opened about 3 1/2 months ago and is attracting its share of customers.

Wong, meanwhile, sees mainstream stores adding more ethnic selections. "It used to be Chun King - that was the Chinese-food section."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4842.

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