US shoppers are spoiled for choice when it comes to grocery options. Massive supermarkets, discount outlets, mom and pop stores, high-end yuppie marts and ethnic markets of all stripes proliferate in even the smallest towns.
But for many of the country’s 21 million Asian-Americans, grocery shopping has always meant one thing: a trip to 99 Ranch Market.
The grocery store chain is the largest Asian supermarket chain in the US, ubiquitous in America’s largest Asian communities. Other markets may cater to the needs of niche Asian communities. But only 99 Ranch and its sole competitor – the Korean-American H Mart – serve the needs of the diverse breadth of the Asian-American community.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Lion dancers blessing a grand opening of a 99 Ranch Market. Photo: Handout
The story of 99 Ranch Market begins in 1984, in Westminster, California, outside Los Angeles.
Then, as now, Westminster was best known for its large Vietnamese population. Nevertheless Roger Chen, a recent arrival from Taiwan, decided to open his first store, naming it 99 Price Market before later changing the name.
Thanks to an exploding Asian population in California, the expansion of 99 Ranch Market across the state was rapid. Then in 1998, Chen opened his first store outside California, in Seattle, Washington. Today there are 52 stores in seven states.
The US Census Bureau put the Asian-American population at more than 21 million in 2016, a significant increase from the estimate of just 3.5 million in 1980. The number of arrivals from Asia continues to rise, and they all come hungry for the tastes of home.
A new 99 Ranch Market opening in Frisco, Texas. Photo: Handout
The company is still in the hands of the Chen family and run by the founder’s son, Jonson Chen. Jonson got to know the family business from the ground up, stocking shelves in the summer breaks from high school. He’s since made it his mission to modernize the company from top to bottom.
The first step he took when he took over was to computerize the operations, moving the whole system onto what was then frontline technology: Windows Vista. These days, 99 Ranch is a cutting-edge retailer, offering online shopping and hosting a virtual community meeting place for sharing recipes, advertising the store’s regular customer contests, and posting about sales and special offers.
The challenges of running the 99 Ranch network, and keeping it stocked with the widest range of goods possible, has been a great undertaking. Customers choose the stores because they are looking for ingredients they can’t find anywhere else. They are a growing and increasingly diverse bunch with vastly different food and grocery traditions.We’re a pan-Asian grocer. We’re not just for a specific Chinese customer base- Jonson Chen, 99 Ranch MarketSHARE
“We’re a pan-Asian grocer. We’re not just for a specific Chinese customer base,” Jonson Chen says. “Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, people from all of Southeast Asia have found our market accessible.”
Chen also has to take into consideration what he calls the “generation gap.” While his father catered mostly to first-generation Asian-American immigrants, these days many younger shoppers at 99 Ranch have grown up in the US with a taste for Western food and ingredients, as well as the Asian fare their parents dished up.
For the younger Chen, it is important that the brand remains flexible – think sauerkraut-flavored instant noodles or wasabi potato chips.
Condiment jars on the shelves of an Asian grocery store. Photo: Alamy
“We’ve been doing a better job in terms of the cross-generational transition,” he says. “It’s not only good business practice, but an important way of setting 99 Ranch apart from the pack. A lot of our competition just focuses on the needs of that first generation.”
Another challenge for 99 Ranch is the US government, he points out. The business, by necessity, deals with producers and brands from overseas. Ensuring that each product is compliant with US health and safety standards is a job unto itself.
The company has dealt with these challenges by keeping as much of the operation as possible in-house. While customers may only see a market, behind the scenes is a network of farms, factories and production facilities stretching from China to the United States, all company-owned.We literally have the guys who produce fresh tofu and soy milk every day and deliver it in a minivan- Jonson Chen, 99 Ranch MarketSHARE
“We work with a variety of vendors big and small,” Chen says. “We literally have the guys who produce fresh tofu and soy milk every day and deliver it in a minivan, all the way through [to] the big Japanese conglomerates.”
Today, 99 Ranch is more than just a grocery store. It has become a proud symbol of vibrant Asian-American communities. Property agents have started looking for new 99 Ranch openings, knowing that a new market is often the first hint of interest from the rapidly expanding Asian-American population and a sure sign that home prices are about to jump.
“We have that chicken-and-the-egg effect,” Jonson Chen says. “We build the community, or the community builds around us. As we establish these stores, we help to establish Asian-American communities around them.”