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Asian stores’ assets are their employees

While panic flooded both Wall Street and Main Street in the late 2000s due to the brewing financial crisis, a different mood permeated Spring Mountain Road. On that street — the city’s so-called “Asian corridor” — arose several large Asian supermarket chains that cast a cheery mood to residents in the city.

Even as many local firms closed shop as they felt the burn of the recession, these grocery chains grew. This is due to the rapidly growing Asian population in the city which created an unprecedented demand for Asian products, Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce Chairman Robert Young said.

The Asian Chamber, established in 1986, has observed the progress of the Asian community in Las Vegas. Because its goal is to represent the professional and business interests of the Asian community, the organization is keyed up at how fast its community’s population has risen recently.

Indeed, at an explosive 116.5 percent growth, the group’s population increase in Nevada from 2000-2010 is exceptional. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the Asian community has greatly outpaced the growth of the state’s Hispanic population. The latter group, which for decades was the fastest growing group in Nevada, grew by a slower 81.9 percent in the same period.

While this brisk Asian population increase in Las Vegas spelled the successful entry of large Asian supermarkets in the city, what would ensure their continued growth are the employees they hire, Young said.

“This is the fastest growing Asian community in the nation right now. (This population) growth pushed these supermarkets to become successful,” he said. “The way Asian employers see their employees is (they are) not liabilities, but are assets instead.”

Growth of Greenland Supermarket

The newest Asian store on the block is Greenland Supermarket located right on the corner of Spring Mountain Road and Rainbow Boulevard. The area is known to locals as Korea Town and Greenland is its anchor tenant.

A calm atmosphere greets shoppers upon entering Greenland’s front doors under the serene pagoda-themed structure. Inside is a stunning high-vaulted ceiling with intricately designed trimmings. Music from an audio and video store selling Korean movies and audio CDs permeate the building. Wafting through the air like a warm welcome is the fragrant smell of specialty Korean dishes from the various booths on the right.

Straight ahead are the fully stocked shelves teeming with snacks, seasonings, drinks and various other ingredients that are needed for bibimbap and other Korean dishes. Behind the shelves, at the back of the store, is fresh fish. At the meat department are pork and beef cut specifically to make kalbi or bulgogi. Marinated meats are also available for the convenience of consumers, along with fully prepared hot Korean dishes. Sure enough, there is a corner of the store that is dedicated to huge jars of kimchee that is ever-present in Korean homes.

To the estimated 30,000 Korean-Americans in Las Vegas, the opening of Greenland Supermarket was truly a much-awaited event.

“Probably many of the Koreans were shopping at smaller Korean stores that did not carry a full line of grocery, produce, meat and household items,” said Mia Jang, manager of the store’s California headquarters..

“(Greenland in Las Vegas) is the first Korean supermarket that caters to all of the customers needs,” she added.

Greenland opened its Las Vegas store in October 2009, taking over space previously used by an Albertsons supermarket that closed in 2006.

Demand for Korean products is what made Greenland owner and CEO Mihee Jang want to establish a presence in Las Vegas, said Mia Jang, her daughter.

Since the mid-1990s, the first-generation Korean-American has been involved in the retail business after buying out an Asian store in the Los Angeles area of Van Nuys and establishing it as the first Greenland Supermarket. A second store was opened in the same city at Rowland Heights in 2001. The Las Vegas branch, the third store, is the first outside California.

Since Greenland is the first and only large Korean supermarket in the city, it does not have much competition. This made the new store relatively successful despite the recession.

“Greenland Supermarket in Las Vegas was established in a slow economy but has been able to do moderately well because there was a need for a larger one-stop shopping retail outlet for Asians and, in particular Koreans,” Mia Jang said.

“Our other markets have suffered more from the slow economy than the Las Vegas supermarket,” she added.

As the number of Asians — not just Koreans — continues to rise at a spectacular rate in the city, the demand for large stores like Greenland will also continue to grow, the chamber’s Young noted.

Oldest Asian hub, host of 99 Ranch

Even before the recent mass migration of Asians to Las Vegas, there was a large supermarket that served the consumer needs of Asians in the city. The grocery store was at the heart of the master-planned China Town Plaza on Spring Mountain Road. The commercial complex was the center of all Asian activity in Las Vegas for many years after it was built in 1995.

For 15 years, 99 Ranch Market was the major source of Asian products in the city. In its earlier years, the shop was a no-nonsense store offering a Pan-Asian Las Vegas community with various Asian staples such as rice and noodles. It was there where one can find fresh produce, fish, meat and ingredients needed for an Asian home-cooked meal. The well-stocked shelves displayed snacks and drinks from various Asian countries like Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea and Japan.

99 Ranch in Las Vegas is part of the huge supermarket chain established by Roger Chen. Its first store was opened in 1984 at Little Saigon in Westminster, Calif. Over the years, the chain has grown into 24 full-service stores in California and has four branches in Washington, Texas and Nevada.

In 2009, about the time other Asian chain supermarkets entered the Las Vegas market, loyal customers of 99 Ranch Las Vegas witnessed some improvements in the store as management changed. Because it was the first large Asian hub in Las Vegas, the “Asian strip” on Spring Mountain grew around it.

Filipinos find their own Asian center

While this Filipino supermarket is beyond the east side border of the Asian corridor, Seafood City on Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road is also a teeming Asian center. The grocery store opened its doors to Las Vegas clients in early 2007.

Its yellow and red signage is an unmistakable come on for the large community of Filipinos in Las Vegas. The din of friendly chatter entice shoppers as do the smells coming from two popular Philippine fast food chains that line the store’s entrance. Cashiers are perpetually busy ringing up purchases of customers who regularly stock up on staples that include jasmine rice, rice noodles, dried fish, patis or fish sauce, and other native seasonings.

Fresh produce lines the right side of the grocery, while hard-to-find cuts of meat that are specifically used for favorite Filipino dishes like lechon kawali, kare-kare and sinigang are available at the meat department on the left side of the store. Staying true to its name, a large array of the freshest fish and seafood are available for picking at this store as well.

Customers can hand pick their choice and bring these home cleaned and fried within an hour. Snacks and drinks — and even toiletries — that homesick Filipinos only get to enjoy when they visit the Philippines are now available to them anytime at the store. Seafood City is after all the U.S. Filipinos’ “home away from home,” said Catherine Quien, the company’s marketing communications manager.

Established 20 years ago in San Diego, Seafood City has, over the years, become a huge chain with over a dozen supermarkets in Southern California and half a dozen in Northern California. In addition to the Las Vegas branch, its Seattle store is its second outside the Golden State.

All Seafood City stores are intended to be one-stop-shopping destination that caters to the Filipino-American lifestyle, Quien said.

“In this our Las Vegas store is no different from our other locations,” she said.

But the Las Vegas store is distinctive because it opened at a time when most stores in the city, which became known as ground zero for the housing crisis that triggered the recession, were closing.

“The decision to open (the Las Vegas store) was due to the significant concentration of Filipinos, which make up Seafood City’s primary market base,” Quien said.

Filipinos are currently the largest Asian subgroup in Nevada. At an estimated 150,000, it is the largest Asian community in Las Vegas. Filipinos also registered the highest rate of growth from 2000 to 2010 at a hefty 142 percent, 2010 Census Bureau figures showed.

Arrival and survival of Asian stores
In Las Vegas

Growing as swift as the Filipino population in Nevada is the number of Asian residents in the state, specifically in Las Vegas. This creates a great demand for products that entices a unique group of investors into the city, said the chamber’s Young.

“The demand is there. As long as demand is there, the market will expand. As long as we are the fastest growing community, there will be more (Asian stores),” he said.

Young noted the large Asian grocery stores came despite the sluggish economy because they believe it is precisely the best time to make investments.

But “best business move” aside, what made these Asian supermarket chains flourish in Las Vegas is the common core values they have.

“Asian culture is very much that when you start a business, there are two things that are different compared to mainstream businesses,” Young stressed.

“One is that we are very much family-oriented. We are using family members working together as a team. That is a core value of Asian enterprises,” he said.

Indeed, this is true at Greenland Supermarket where Mia Jang oversees the core operations at the headquarters of the three stores founded by her mother Mihee Jang.

“A lot of hiring is also done through walk-ins or by word-of-mouth. Current employees will often recommend an acquaintance or family member,” the younger Jang said.

She noted, however, that Greenland does not discriminate based on age, race or gender. The company also advertises job openings in local newspapers where the three stores are located.

Because its customer base is mostly Koreans, Jang noted that candidates who can speak Korean and English are favored for certain positions.

In contrast, the much larger Seafood City Corp. has less stringent qualification requirements for most of its positions. Being bilingual is not even required given that a very large majority of Filipinos are fluent in the English language.

As a result, Quien said, “We get a tremendous number of applicants from various backgrounds.” The company also advertises in print and online media to fill its job vacancies.

Still, the friendly “family atmosphere” is evident in the store, even as employees maintain a professional work environment, where providing excellent customer service is as important as keeping its vision, Quien said.

“Seafood City aims to be a keeper of customs and values dear to Filipinos that we hope to pass on from generation to generation,” she said. Treating friends as family and being friends with family members is a trait common among Filipinos.

“(Seafood City) is a place where Filipino-Americans feel a sense of belonging, pride and of relevance,” Quien said.

This was echoed by Greenland’s Mia Jang, who said, “Korean employees in general feel a sense of camaraderie, like they are linked to the Korean-American community within Las Vegas by working (at the store).”

Aside from the family-oriented hiring practices, meanwhile, the other more important value that sets Asian firms apart is the way these companies treat their employees, Young noted.

“They treat them not as a liability, but an asset. If the economy is down, they will not fire those employees. They will find a way to increase income instead. That is the big difference,” he said.

Coming up with new products and updating selling strategies are just some of the ways that these firms increase income during hard economic times, Young noted.

In addition, cross-training of employees is becoming a trend among Asian-owned companies in a bid to retain their current roster of workers.

“Cashiers are being trained to do other work, and other workers are trained to do cashier work,” Young cited as an example. This, he said, also helps keep more employees in their jobs.

But the promise of job security and long-time employment by Asian employers are only given to those who show commitment to their jobs and its challenges, Young said.

“Most of the time, Asian employers hire for long term. They want employees to start from the ground, then work up, then step up,” he said.

“When we hire someone, we look at their resume. If, for example, they are in one position for five to 10 years, we would be very interested,” Young added.

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