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America's Asian markets expand into superstores

Fidgety black catfish in oversized tanks greet supermarket customers at 99 Ranch Market, located in this industrial section of Hawaii.

Hiroshi Kobayashi, the supermarket's owner, unwraps a package filled with tiny slabs of mystery meat. "Duck tongue," he says, with obvious glee. "Bet you didn't know we had that."

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Clearly, this is not your average supermarket. Yet 99 Ranch is one of several, booming Asian supermarket chains that are spreading across the United States, from Hawaii to Georgia, and on up to Canada.

Borrowing a lesson from Western-style supermarket behemoths such as Costco, these Asian food chains have redesigned the traditional groceries of Chinatown into glossy superstores that target a predominantly suburban clientele.

Behind the trend is the growing prosperity of many Asian-Americans, who have left their inner-city, ethnic neighborhoods for mainstream suburbs, and want a convenient outlet to buy their cultural foods.

Once based predominantly in large Asian neighborhoods in California, these markets have become big business. Founded in 1984, Tawa Supermarkets, the California parent company of 99 Ranch, employs thousands and rakes in annual gross revenues in the hundreds of millions.

The chains "have everything I want," says Angelina Summers, a Filipina pushing a shopping cart, loaded with two packets of pork snout and a wide-eyed toddler named Ashley. "Instead of going to Chinatown, this is so much more convenient," she adds. "And they have more - like the marinated meats. They usually only sell one style in Chinatown."

The reception these stores receive often borders on pandemonium. When Mr. Kobayashi's store opened in March, it caused a one-hour traffic backup on a nearby freeway and upset government officials. When the Marukai Wholesale Mart opened its doors in 1987 in Hawaii's Kalihi district, the store was so busy on opening day that the police warned its vice president, Richard Matsu, about overcrowding.

According to Mr. Matsu, selling fish and groceries is no longer enough to attract customers. "We have to be entertainers, too," he says, competing with the sound of a Japanese pop song blaring from the store's loudspeakers. "Last week, we had an antique fair," he explains. "Another time, we brought in a singer and raised her up on a forklift to perform."

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AS the ethnic-supermarket industry continues to expand, developers are building shopping centers to specifically attract Asian customers. For example, Kobayashi has developed a 100,000-square-foot shopping mall in Mapunapuna that houses 99 Ranch and several other Asian-oriented businesses.

Even mainstream developers are showing interest in the Asian malls, which tend to have lower vacancy rates than their counterparts and are often more profitable.

Meanwhile, major supermarket chains across the country are starting to take notice of the new ethnic trend. Many have increased their Asian food offerings and have begun selling prepared Asian food. The moves are designed not only to win back Asian customers, but also to stop an exodus of non-Asians who prefer the new markets for high-quality seafood and specialty items.

But Kobayashi isn't worried by these efforts. "My competition is Chinatown ... not Safeway," he says, smiling.

Besides, "they will never have this," adds Kobayashi, pointing to his store shelves, overflowing with dozens of bottles of soy sauce from exotic locations around the world.

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