Cultivating a taste for Asia

Except for the Oriental script above the doors outside, Han Ah Reum Inc. could be any bland grocery with freezer aisles and predictable produce.

But step inside this pan-Asian supermarket -- whose name means "bountiful" -- and you will find different worlds.

Amid the beat of techno music, an American mother searches the aisles of the Catonsville store for the only food that her newly adopted Chinese daughter will eat. An Indian family selects yucca and coconuts from an array of south Asian produce. And a vegan, Jeff Rasmussen -- who doesn't eat dairy, meat, seafood or egg products -- said "the freshness of the fruits and vegetables is consistent, and the prices are unbelievable."

In the past decade, at least three Korean-American food companies have opened large supermarkets in suburaban Maryland near Baltimore and in Wheaton, outside Washington, D.C.

Han Ah Reum (HAR) is located on Rolling Road near Route 40. It has operated out of a 27,000-square-foot former SuperFresh supermarket for nearly two years and is managed by Sang Bong Shim.

Using his assistant, Ho Yoon, as translator, Shim said it is no mystery why more than 1,200 shoppers cruise his aisles every weekday.

"American and Asian people like the store because they want to learn about different cultures, products and foods -- and they like the cheap prices," he said.

About 80 percent of HAR's customers are not Korean, Yoon added.

"Often, people who watch the Food Network bring Asian recipes here and [then] ask where is this item or that item," he said. "They want us to start cooking classes."

HAR has more than 100,000 Asian products -- including 36 types of tofu, Thai eggplants, Indian bitter melons and seaweed. The store's inventory also includes about 35 varieties of rice and a dozen kinds of kimchi, a pungent garlic-laced Korean staple.

A large, well-stocked fresh seafood section, which sells many items purchased from Maryland fishermen, offers live eel, frogs and turtles for adventurous or knowledgeable chefs.

When asked if Koreans prepare meals using turtles and frogs, Yoon reacted in mock horror. "No," he said. "Those are for our Chinese customers."

But they are not the only ones.

Mitzie Walker, who just moved back to Baltimore from California, has made stews from turtles and sautéed and fried frogs' legs.

"They [both] have a similar taste and texture to chicken," she said.

Walker said she likes the supermarket because the diversity of foods and customers reminds her of life in California.

The store also has a sushi bar, as well as a noodle restaurant serving Korean meals like Bibim Nangmyun, spicy buckwheat noodles with vegetables and sliced beef, or Tang Soo Yook, which is sweet-and-sour pork. HAR also contains a sweet-smelling bakery.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported that more than 210,000 Asians -- including 39,000 Koreans and Korean-Americans -- live in Maryland. And Susan Au Allen, president of the Pan-Asian American Chamber of Commerce in Washington applauds how Korean grocers leapt from running small stores to supermarkets.

"They learned the American way of business and then brought the Asian work ethic to it," she said. "Now, the mom-and-pop owners sit in corporate offices instead of in the back of the store."

The first HAR opened in 1982 in Queens, N.Y. Now, the Catonsville and Wheaton supermarkets are among 15 that operate from there to Virginia. The chain also has a distribution center in Savage.

In the Catonsville market, like at most HAR stores, nearly three-quarters of its customers are non-Korean, including about 30 percent Chinese. The privately held company does not disclose its revenues, but officials said that 40 percent of its sales occur on weekends -- when more than 2,500 customers shop daily.

"When we opened the store, only 5 percent of our customers were Americans," Yoon said. "At this time, they are almost 15 percent. We advertise on Comcast Cable 21 times a week."

On weekdays, the 50 HAR employees serve about 1,200 customers. The store's workers include 30 non-Korean, mostly Hispanic employees. The Wheaton store employs African-Americans.

But HAR's hold on the Catonsville market is about to be challenged. In April, another Korean firm is expected to open a food court in the same strip mall. It is expected to serve six different Asian cuisines. "That is good for my market," Yoon said.

In other parts of Maryland, large Korean supermarkets also attract a diverse array of customers.

Rhee Bros Inc., based in Columbia, has three Lotte supermarkets -- including one near Routes 40 and 29 near Columbia. And in Wheaton, Hoon Jung, the manager of the stand-alone Korean Korner supermarket, said its customer base is two-thirds non-Asian -- and 30 percent are Hispanics. The city is a vibrant community of Eastern Indians, Latinos, blacks and whites.

Customer satisfaction, of course, is key. Catonsville resident Tony Anthony, who was shopping at HAR with his mother and sister, originally is from south India. He says he visits the supermarket twice a week because of its prices and because "it has all the items we can get back home."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun