ungry customers formed long lines for hot tofu soup on Lotte Plaza Market’s opening day in February.
A few days later, a Korean cuisine eatery opened at the west Orlando location, too. Now there are three more restaurants under construction ready to serve sushi, Chinese food and even an American-style bakery.
Orlando’s collection of Asian grocery stores are undergoing major changes to attract more mainstream shoppers, as well as younger shoppers who don’t have the time or the skills to cook. Many of the markets are catering to residents of low-income neighborhoods abandoned by other grocers.
Alvin Lee, president of the Lotte Plaza Market Asian grocery store chain, said he’s taking cues from the mainstream supermarket industry with ready-to-eat, restaurant-style meals.
The change is coming strongest from national chains such as Maryland-based Lotte Plaza Market and New York City’s iFresh. But long-standing local markets are pivoting as well.
Lotte Plaza in Orlando is the first venture into Florida for a Maryland-based chain with all of its other stores in mid-Atlantic states. It took over a 60,000-square-foot former Winn-Dixie store at Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway, on the eastern edge of the Pine Hills community known more for its Caribbean restaurants.
It also carries a selection of American grocery items such as Frosted Flakes and Coca-Cola, stocked on shelves not far from dried shrimp and the fermented cabbage staple kimchi.
Fresh seafood department at Lotte Plaza Market at 3191 W Colonial Drive in Orlando, on Monday, April 8, 2019.(Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)
Last year, New York City-based iFresh debuted in Orlando by buying a small, upstart grocery store east of downtown at 2415 E. Colonial Drive in another former Winn-Dixie spot. Just recently iFresh added a sushi-cupcake hybrid restaurant called Ricupps in addition to its Formosa bakery, dim sum and Asian restaurants inside its grocery.
In late 2017, New Golden Sparkling Supermarket opened at 5600 W. Colonial Drive with 40,000 square feet of fresh produce, seafood and items from China, India, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.
A pivot to fresh, restaurant-style food isn’t new to the supermarket business but is now including ethnic stores that once thrived on catering to niche audiences. Publix and Winn-Dixie have added more fresh foods, cafes and meal kits in recent years.
New competitors such as Lucky’s Market, Sprouts Farmers Market and Earth Fare appeal to appetites with big deli counters serving fresh pizza, sandwiches and even taco bars.
“That’s how you bring in customers today,” said Steve Kirn, a retired professor at the University of Florida who has studied retail trends. “Stores in China look a lot more modern, too.”
Dong A Supermarket, a 10,000-square-foot densely packed store at 816 N. Mills Ave., has survived by catering to traditional customers, said Anh Chau, whose family has run the business since the late 1980s in Orlando’s Asian business corridor of Mills 50. But she said sales are shifting. Customers are buying more easy-to-prepare items, she said.
“Customers are changing, especially millennials,” Chau said. “People aren’t cooking at home as much, and they are going out to eat more.”
The makeup of the neighborhood is changing too, she said, as younger people move in to be close to downtown.
“It used to be an Asian neighborhood, but now there are more young people who don’t know how to cook this kind of food,’’ she said. “They want something easy.”
Nearby Tien Hung, another traditional Asian market, is getting more shoppers stopping by after eating at nearby restaurants, said Ben Phan, whose family owns the market.
Winter Park’s Summar Borrison-Hudson said she spent $200 visiting Lotte Plaza shortly after it opened on produce, meat, snacks and the two restaurants there.
“My son was so happy about all of the Korean snacks and Korean drinks,” said Borrison-Hudson, who works in medical sales and is half-Korean.
In addition to drawing foodies craving ethnic foods such as Borrison-Hudson, Asian markets have also moved into neighborhoods abandoned by other markets.
Food Court at Lotte Plaza Market at 3191 W Colonial Drive in Orlando, on Monday, April 8, 2019.(Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)
Such “stores sell a lot of healthy produce in areas where other stores have left,” said Chris Castro, the director of sustainability for the City of Orlando, who has been working on access to food in low-income neighborhoods. “The food is even pretty affordable, even compared to something like Publix.”
Lee knew when he opened the first Orlando store, fresh and accessible food would be the key to drawing in customers outside of the traditional Asian immigrant base. He also picked the location because it wasn’t near a traditional grocery store.
“We want to create an environment that’s welcoming to everyone and not intimidating,” Lee said. “Often the best way to do that is with fresh food.”