Originally created 09/13/98

Demand for ethnic food continues to grow



LOS ANGELES -- Eddie Fung strolls through the aisles of the 99 Ranch Market, a jar of hot Korean bean paste and preserved duck eggs in shrink wrap tucked in beside a bag of Lay's potato chips and a six-pack of Coca-Cola.

"You see these," Mr. Fung said, pulling a jar of pickled radishes from the basket. "Before, I could only get these in Taiwan. Now I just drive five minutes and I can buy as much as I want."

Sprawling ethnic supermarkets like 99 Ranch have sprung up throughout the country, catering not only to immigrants who miss the taste of home, but also to other Americans whose tastes grow ever more adventurous.

A far cry from the old ethnic market on the corner, these mammoth markets carry a full line of traditional groceries, the ice cream sitting beside frozen Chinese dumplings.

Retail sales of ethnic foods in the United States have steadily increased from $208.9 million in 1992 to $272.2 million in 1996 and could reach $383 million by 2001, according to the New York-based market research firm Packaged Facts.

With that much money at stake, conventional U.S. grocery chains are jumping into the fray, turning over more shelf space to Asian and Hispanic specialties.

"Supermarkets are recognizing the people they service now are different from 10 years ago," said Todd Turner, director of urban affairs and diversity programs for the Food Marketing Institute, based in Washington.

"They have to offer products and services to meet those needs. It's happening all over the country. They've recognized the spending power of Asians, blacks and other minorities," he said.

The Buena Park, Calif.-based 99 Ranch, which carries the cuisine of a variety of Asian cultures, has 25 stores in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, and does some $200 million in annual sales. The stores are mostly in areas with a large Asian immigrant population, but they draw a wide range of customers.

"I see 10 years from now the merchandise mix between Western and Asian goods will level out to reflect the changing society," said Roger Chen, president and founder of 99 Ranch chain. "It will really be a healthy competition."

In 1984, a year after Mr. Chen immigrated from Taiwan, he found himself longing for foods from home. He figured there were others just like himself so he opened his first market, stocking a variety of Asian items as well as traditional American fare.