When Freshia Market opened a store last month within walking distance of his Torrance home, Ron Gold was pleased.
The 79-year-old retired insurance agent was thrilled with the fresh vegetables and fruits at bargain prices, although he didn’t know what to make of the chili pastes, sun-dried squid, marinated raw blue crabs, boiled codfish eggs, sweet rice cakes, tofu, seaweed and other Korean specialties.
“I think it would be a little like going to a foreign country,” said Gold, who nonetheless said he would continue shopping regularly at the store.
Freshia, a newcomer to Southern California’s expanding Korean grocery market, is hoping to pad its bottom line by appealing to non-Koreans such as Gold.
Many of the dozens of food stores in Southern California that cater to the region’s diverse immigrant and ethnic population try to reach people outside their target group. But Freshia wants to go a step further -- not just stocking non-Korean merchandise but actively marketing beyond its core shoppers.
“We are not saying we are Ralphs,” said Charles A. Rim, a partner in Freshia, which has another store in Tustin. “But we do need to reach other customers.”
It will be more of a balancing act than an exact science, Rim acknowledged. Doing too much to appeal to non-Korean shoppers may turn Koreans away from the store. “It will take a lot of tweaking along the way,” he said.
Cross-ethnic shoppers already represent a significant portion of business in Korean markets, store operators say.
“It is not so much a strategy” of reaching out to other ethnic groups, said Jason Lee, a planning director for Hannam Chain, which operates five markets, including Market World stores, in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
“It is just the reality,” Lee said. “We can’t do business only with Koreans. Many of our customers are Chinese, Vietnamese, Latinos, Anglos .... They shop at our stores, so we try to serve them too” by carrying merchandise they are looking for.
But it’s not always an easy sell. The proverbial melting pot is more like a stir-fry in Southern California. Nowhere is that more evident, perhaps, than in the supermarket aisles. Flavors and cultures do not blend so much as they coexist and complement.
Latino residents in Koreatown may drop in at the Hannam Chain Korean market on Olympic Boulevard for tomatoes and eggs, but they are more likely to do their main shopping at the Jons Marketplace on 8th Street, where they will find various types of tortillas and queso fresco.
Korean shoppers may buy bread and milk at their local Vons or Ralphs, but most will thumb their noses at the mainstream markets’ selection of kimchi, or pickled cabbage, a Korean mainstay.
Nonetheless, Freshia’s owners say they are doing all they can to lure non-Koreans without turning off their core customers.
It starts with the name. Freshia is an obvious play on the word fresh. Nothing in the signage hints at the store’s Korean character. Most first-time customers were not even aware it was a Korean market until they stepped inside and saw the staff and products. A few workers speak English, but Korean is the preferred language among cashiers and managers. The store carries some mainstream products such as sodas and frozen pizzas, but the product line is overwhelmingly Korean.
“I thought it was going to be like a Whole Foods or something,” said Jeanne Dickerson, 22, of West Los Angeles, who was visiting a friend in Torrance and stopped in to look for a restroom. On her way out, she stocked up on imported Korean snacks: chocolate-covered vanilla cookie sticks and candy.
A few aisles away from Dickerson, Mitsuko Nakano, 42, was browsing the aisles with her two infant children in tow.
Nakano, who is Japanese, had filled her cart with fresh produce and seaweed wraps, which Nakano knows as nori. The Korean packaging called it gim, but the pictures needed no translation.
“The produce in the Korean markets is usually cheaper than in the Japanese markets,” Nakano said. She still shops for Japanese essentials at markets such as Marukai and Mitsuwa, but she can find a lot of what she needs in Korean stores, she said, because “Koreans and Japanese have very similar tastes.”
It is in that overlap of tastes that Freshia hopes to find opportunities, said Rim, 44, an accountant by trade who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12. “It boils down to if you cater only to Koreans, you are dealing with a much narrower customer base,” he said. “Going beyond your ethnic core gives you higher margins. Everybody eats vegetables, everybody wants fresh fish and meats.”
Because Asian diets in general include more fresh produce and fish, Asian markets such as Freshia can offer greater variety and move larger volumes. The higher volume helps keep prices down and freshness up. Rim said that might appeal to health- and price-conscious non-Asians as well. And some Korean foods, such as marinated barbecue beef and kimchi, have a broader fan base than just Koreans.
Rim said half the customers at the Torrance store were of Korean descent. The other half are about equally divided among Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese and whites. Nearly 300,000 people of Korean descent live in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, the largest concentration outside North and South Korea. The three counties’ Asian population is nearly 2 million, or 10% of the total.
“If you target only the Korean community, how many stores can you really open?” said Steve Park, 43, Rim’s partner and the venture’s financial backer.
Tommy Murakoshi, director of store development for Gardena-based Japanese market chain Marukai, can relate. Unlike the Korean and Chinese populations, which continue to experience an inflow of immigrants, the Japanese American population has held relatively steady for decades. Still, Marukai is growing. It has five stores in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with two more slated to open in Cupertino and San Diego.
Murakoshi credited the chain’s staying power in part to the growing numbers of Chinese and Korean shoppers. “We are first and foremost a Japanese market,” he said, “but we have significant numbers of other Asian customers.”
But few ethnic markets openly court customers outside their groups. Some Korean markets advertise to other Asian ethnic groups, with spots on Chinese or Japanese television programs, for example.
Freshia has done that as well, but Rim and Park want to test the limits of how much they can coax non-Koreans without turning off their core customers. The courting is subtle. Unlike in most Korean supermarkets, English signs mark the front of the aisles, with Korean signs relegated to the back. The piped-in tunes are more soul than Seoul.
Rim said he wanted to carry more non-Korean products than cereal, bread and soda. He said he was in talks with specialty cookie makers, wine distributors and a local salad dressing maker.
Freshia is also unusual in what it is missing. A trademark of many Korean supermarkets is the banchan station, a smorgasbord of traditional side dishes that include raw oysters in pepper sauce, pickled radishes, dried anchovies and other delicacies that to the uninitiated may look like a salad bar from a sci-fi movie. At Freshia, Rim and Park have displayed the food only in prepackaged containers.
“It could be a turnoff, if you are not Korean,” Rim said.
The partners said they invested close to $6 million building the 28,000-square-foot Torrance store, on the site of a former Albertsons on the corner of Crenshaw and Torrance boulevards, and to refurbish the Tustin store on Red Hill Avenue. The latter, which is about the same size as the Torrance store, used to be a Han Kook Super Market that Park owned, but it reopened last month as Freshia.
The partners declined to discuss financial details, but Rim said the stores had been performing well since opening, with about 2,000 sales a day on average. Korean shoppers at the Torrance store said they didn’t feel shortchanged by the store’s marketing strategy.
“A business has to do what it can to stay in business,” said Seung Ki Yeom, 41, shopping with his wife, Chong Sun Kim, 46. “This place is nice, clean.”
The Torrance couple often venture to Koreatown to find the best grocery bargains and fresh produce, his wife said. Customers appreciate quality and value regardless of ethnicity, Kim said. “You see these cucumbers?” she said, pointing to a pile. “They are more expensive, but look, they are already wilting.”
She promptly turned and bagged a handful from another batch. “These are fresher,” she said, and then pointing to the price, “and cheaper.”