Upscale Asian supermarket to open in Irvine
Assi Natural Market in Irvine to offer organic foods and Asian foods in an upscale environment.



Thomas Yoon swept one hand above neatly stacked family-size bags of rice and other grains that fill an entire aisle of Assi Natural Market.

"We carry about 50 varieties of rice and grains from around the world," said Yoon, branch manager of the new market opening late this month in Irvine. "That's more than you would find at an Asian grocery store or average supermarket."

Assi is the latest addition to the growing ethnic grocery market in Orange County and throughout Southern California.

But it's not just the breadth of the selection that separates Assi from other Asian supermarkets, Yoon said.

The main difference is the fusion concept of the store, which offers groceries from cultures around the world, along with natural and organic foods in an upscale environment.

Think Whole Foods Market with an Asian twist in 35,000 square feet of modern interiors.

"Assi is cutting-edge," said Nikoleta Pantoleva, Los Angeles-based senior analyst art IBISWorld. "They're definitely crossing over and they're doing it in a smart way considering that they are tapping into the more affluent consumer who likes to spend their money on different cuisines."

The store is opening in Woodbridge Village Center at Barranca Parkway and Creek Road in Irvine. Central Irvine already has several Asian-theme supermarkets, including H Mart at Diamond Jamboree, 99 Ranch Market and Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Last year saw the debut of two Orange County supermarkets focusing on Middle Eastern groceries: Aria International Supermarket took over a space vacated years before by Sears Essentials in Tustin, while Fresh Choice Marketplace opened its first location in Garden Grove.

Anaheim-based Northgate Gonzalez Market, which specializes in Mexican foods as well as groceries catering to other Latino cultures, opened three stores in Los Angeles and San Diego last year.

The company is scouting locations in Fullerton, as well as in south and west Orange County, to add to its 36-store California portfolio, said Carl Middleton, president of the company's real estate division.

The growth of such supermarkets tends to be concentrated in communities that are culturally diverse, Pantoleva said. Amid these ethnic grocery retailers, Assi represents an entirely new category because it appeals to a wider range of consumers than a single ethnic group, she said.

The ethnic supermarket industry in the U.S. has a yearly revenue of about $26 billion and profits of $728.4 million, according to Pantoleva's report for IBISWorld, a research firm that analyzes industry trends. This segment is expected to grow 3.7 percent annually, with the number of store locations nationwide rising to 25,012 in 2016 from 21,393 in 2011.

The foodie culture, fanned by TV food shows and chef competitions, has helped broaden customers' culinary palates and knowledge so that they're more likely to try ingredients and cuisines from many more parts of the world than they would have in the past.

Assi plans to tap into that market, Yoon said...