On early Saturday mornings, customers flood Naperville’s lone Asian supermarket, tearing down towers of boldly colored, pre-packaged food, and picking out fresh produce and live fish. Consumers spend the entire day tasting free samples, grabbing lunch at the food court, and mingling with peers with similar ethnic backgrounds.
As one of the few Asian supermarkets in the United States and one of the youngest chains, Super H Mart is deemed the only one-stop-shop for Asian products and food in Chicago’s western suburbs. Steve Lee, the current Naperville store manager at 1295 E. Ogden Ave., said this 7-year-old market may have helped the town’s Asian population grow, while simultaneously uniting a single region of the world to the rest of the “American ethnicity.”
“It’s totally an international store,” Lee said. “Our main customers are Chinese; however, other frequent customers we see are Korean, Filipino, Indian and 50 percent are white.”
The “H” in H Mart is short for “han ah reum” in Korean. This translates into English as “arm full of groceries,” which symbolizes the store’s vibrant, light-hearted feel and its goal to incorporate tradition into a modern, multicultural business model. In fact, H Mart is also located in Niles, Glenview, and Schaumburg - as well as several other states throughout America.
According to the Asian American Institute in Chicago’s report on Asian American communities in the Midwest, there was a 41 percent increase in the Asian population in Illinois, based on the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.
“Illinois is home to the Midwest’s largest Asian American population,” the AAIC reported. The most prominent ethnic groups are Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Pakistani and Japanese Americans. After Cook County - where Chicago is located - DuPage County has the second largest growth in Asian Americans with a current population of over 100,000 residents.
According to a City-Data census taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 and 2010 surveys, the number of minorities moving to Naperville, Ill., located in DuPage, increased as the total population increased. The biggest jump in minority population occurred with the Asians, starting at 9.6 percent in 2000 and jumping to 13.7 percent by 2009. Asians have remained the second largest population in town ever since.
“A lot of people are regulars, and I do see a lot of different people. Most of the shoppers are Asian, but the store serves all kinds of people,” said Samuel Lopez, 23, a part-time employee.
Mixing between ethnicities through interracial relationships is highly prevalent in Naperville and the surrounding suburbs. Finding stores with products to cater to these different needs is hard, so H Mart makes sure to carry items for all ethnic groups, as well as specific Asian products, such as various brands of tea versus various American sodas like Coca-Cola or Pepsi.
“Our strengths are our ‘live stuff’ like lobster and tilapia or our variety of meat. It’s all high-quality meat too.” Lee said. “We try to also sell American grocery items and our produce is very good as well, something that everyone needs.”
In order to stay competitive with larger grocery chains and small ethnic businesses, Lee said they try to keep low prices for their larger variety of Asian spices, packaged foods, and teas. Since they have a high volume of customers, their stocks are replenished either weekly or sometimes sooner. The pricing revolves around basic supply and demand, but he also looks into staying within a dollar of what his competitors are charging. American brands also remain reasonably priced in order to provide for those not interested in the Asian products but still want to pay less.
According to Lee, the store had replaced a 40,000-square-foot Dominick’s in 2007 but had to expand to an extra 20,000 square feet in the following months to make room for extra inventory, an abundance of customers, and the H Plaza opening - the store’s Asian food court.
Lopez said ethnic markets that are particular with their demographics will fail, and he is very fond of the diversity in staff. “This model will grow in areas like this,” he said.
H Mart has grown so popular that people like Dan Price, 42, a professor and chair of the sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, go to great lengths to experiment with items never before seen in other grocery stores.
“I live in Humboldt Park, but I do errands in the suburbs and shop here almost once a week,” Price said. “For Asian stuff, like chive blossoms, fresh ginseng, and turmeric - you can’t find these anywhere. There is a lot of cool stuff here, and it’s cheaper too.”
Price said he thinks that store owners like Lee and local corporate managers observe communities to see if they can represent the larger group and to provide for them.
“The reason I think this place is here is that it’s a reflection of the Asian population out here,” Price said. “Humboldt Park is a pretty diverse part of Chicago, but what’s really interesting about H Mart is that I see a lot of mixed ethnicity couples. The business is here because it’s perfect, and in a way, it’s meeting the needs of these mixed groups. You see that more here than in Chicago.”