From Far East to [North]West: Asian businesses thriving in Austin

The Lee family, including Pat (left) and his father, Tom, run MT Supermarket in North Austin, which is still the largest international grocery store in Central Texas.

The Lee family, including Pat (left) and his father, Tom, run MT Supermarket in North Austin, which is still the largest international grocery store in Central Texas.

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Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
Image description
Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
Image description
Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
Image description
Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
Image description
Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
Image description
Asians drawn to Northwest Austin for high-tech, retail jobs and quality schools
UPDATED 12:29 p.m.

In 2006, Austin’s largest Asian grocery store opened in North Austin, and this year two more Asian grocery chains opened, a response to the growing needs of the state’s fastest-growing population segment.

This attention on Austin from major Asian businesses, including H Mart and 99 Ranch Market, is speaking volumes about Austin’s Asian economy.

“I think it’s just the beginning,” said Paul Kim, a Northwest Austin resident and former chair of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. “H Mart, their plan for expansion is not only for their grocery store, but all around that area they have a plan for that center to turn it into a bonafide Asian center of entertainment and dining: a mini Asian Domain.”

In the past five years, more than 80 Asian businesses have opened in the North and Northwest Austin area, including a franchise of Sharetea, a Taiwanese bubble tea chain, operated by University of Texas graduate Christine Nieh.

“[H Mart and 99 Ranch] were the main magnets that brought other big Asian names here and promoted that growth of other Asian businesses,” she said. “That was something that, when I was looking at a location, fueled my drive to be in the Northwest Austin area.”

What is driving the growth


Austin’s Asian population is doubling every 10 years, compared with the city’s overall population doubling every 20 years, according to the city demographer’s office.

That growth is more pronounced in North and Northwest Austin, where the number of Asians increased more than 17 percent from 2011-16, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By ZIP code, pockets of North and Northwest Austin have experienced three to four times that growth in the same time period.

For many Asians, they are seeking the quality schools in Northwest Austin as well as the area’s high-tech jobs.

“Since the 1950s, there has been a tremendous dispersion of the Asian population across the United States and focused on areas where there is economic opportunity,” said Madeline Hsu, a professor of Asian American history and migration studies at The University of Texas.

With the influx of growth, Sona Shah, culture and arts education manager at the city-owned Asian American Resource Center, said it is vital for Asian cultures to maintain their identities. At the center, Shah said the center aims to promote these identities, cultures and histories to both Asians and non-Asians.

“[Asian is] a panethnic identity, and we don’t even know about a lot of our other ethnic communities that we’re lumped in together, so how do we educate ourselves about that?” she said.

Opening doors to culture


Because Asia is so large and contains numerous languages, cultures and histories, Marina Ong Bhargava, president and CEO of the Asian chamber, said it remains a challenge to educate non-Asians—and even other Asians—on the diversity of Asia.

“There needs to be some education, too,” Bhargava said. “You can’t have a successful business if you just cater to that particular group. You need to have a larger market base.”

The Asian chamber is hoping to educate Asians and non-Asians by hosting a Night Market on March 22-23, featuring cuisine from throughout Asia, she said.

Opening residents to various types of Asian cuisine is also a goal at Zaika Indian Contemporary Cuisine, which opened in June, co-owner Mahendra “Maddy” Gawane said. He said the restaurant experience he and his business partner, co-owner and Executive Chef Bhupender Rawat, both have led them to open their own restaurant, featuring North and South Indian cuisine. But Gawane said Zaika also offers tastes of Nepal and Pakistan.

“I always take pride to walk with a new customer/guest to help him or her and explain what the basic dishes are,” he said.

Nieh said she wanted to introduce the Austin community to a popular Asian treat: bubble tea. In college, she worked at Coco’s Cafe, which serves Taiwanese cuisine and also has a North Austin spot.

“[Milk tea] was something that was part of my childhood,” she said. “That really just all transpired together with milk tea, me being Taiwanese, working at a bubble tea shop and it just sparked my interest in working at a bubble tea shop.”

Juwon Lee, owner of Hi Tunes Karaoke, opened his second business on Anderson Lane in March, a chicken house called Hi Wings. Lee said after coming to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea in 1991, he could not eat enough fried chicken.

In Korea fried chicken is often served whole, but Lee said he wanted to focus on something more American, so he opened a Korean-style wing restaurant in March. He said he does educate guests on the different style, which includes adding sauce to the breading and deep-frying twice.

“When they see the words Korean-style fried chicken, they open their minds a little bit more,” he said. “It’s a different style, so they’ll try. So far as feedback goes it’s very popular.”

Language is still a challenge


Even though Austinites are willing to cross the cultural bridge and try new cuisine, some Asian business owners say the language barrier is still a challenge in connecting with the community.

Eugene Choe, owner of CNN Hair Team Salon, opened his second hair salon, La Belle Salon & Spa, last year. Speaking in Korean while his wife, Sue, translated, Choe said he chose The Arboretum for the new salon because of the area demographics and the fact the shopping center is well-established. His salon now offers exclusive services to guests at the Renaissance Hotel in The Arboretum.

Growing up in Namwon, South Korea, Choe trained to become a stylist but always had a dream of opening a business in the United States, he said.

“In Austin, it’s an international city, so it’s not like [someone from one Asian nation] supports just their own [people],” he said. “They support each other. It’s more welcoming.”

Choe can still work with clients without speaking English but said knowing English would make it easier.

“It’s easier to join the community and learn the culture,” he said.

The growth is not slowing


In the 1980s, many Asian families would travel to Houston or Dallas to get food they needed, said Pat Lee, whose parents built MT Supermarket and the Chinatown Center on North Lamar Boulevard in 2006, focusing on Vietnamese and Chinese products.

Lee’s parents emigrated from Vietnam to Houston and moved the family to Austin in the 1980s. They saw an opportunity to open an Asian grocery store in the 1980s, Lee said—now called MT Supermarket and opened in 2006—which is still the largest international grocery store in Central Texas.

With the opening of Korean-focused H Mart near Lakeline Mall and Taiwan-focused 99 Ranch Market—often called Ranch 99—on Airport Boulevard, Lee said the competition will only make his family’s business stronger. It is also indicative of what is to come, he said.

“There’s always room for improvement and growth,” Lee said. “As we continue to grow we’re going to see some of the new business concepts, new brands, either from Asia or bigger cities in the U.S. come to Austin. Austin is growing, and the growth of the Asian community and businesses mirrors that.”

Growth is not coming to just the Asian business community but also the organizations that serve it. The AARC and the Asian American Cultural Center on Jollyville Road are planning their own expansions in response to rising needs in the Asian community.

Off Cameron Road, the AARC celebrated its fifth birthday Oct. 6, and the total number of visitors and program participants has nearly doubled since 2013 to almost 54,000 per year.

The 16,000-square-foot facility was funded through a 2006 city bond, and Phase 2 will include more amenities based on community input, Shah said.

“It’s pretty amazing what a strong constituent of Asian Americans we have here in Austin,” she said. “This is how this facility was built, through a lot of grassroots mobilizing, and some of the organizations that exist that really pushed the city of Austin to create a space like this.”

At the AACC, founder and CEO Amy Wong Mok requested a zoning change to permit a senior-living facility, a new child development center, and a cultural center with a tea and dumpling house.

“We eat dumplings in every happy occasion: in weddings, in the new year because wrapping the dumpling you are putting all of your good thoughts and good fortune into this little pocket,” she said. “It’s such an art. All Asian cultures have a dumpling.”

Wong Mok said she also saw a need in Austin to create community.

“With all this additional diversity coming into Austin, it’s just going to make Austin become a global city,” she said. “We don’t even have to travel far or have a passport. Everything is here.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to remove incorrect details about the headquarters of H Mart.

Interactive


The map below shows the number of Asian businesses that have opened in the North and Northwest Austin areas in the past five years. Layers may be toggled on or off using the menu in the upper left-hand corner of the map. This map was completed using Community Impact Newspaper data and is not comprehensive.

By Amy Denney
Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and then senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition and covering transportation. She is now managing editor for the nine publications in the Central Texas area.


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