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Happy Lunar New Year: Asian Brands to Keep an Eye on for CRE

Caroline Wu
Jan 20, 2023
Happy Lunar New Year:  Asian Brands to Keep an Eye on for CRE

On Jan. 22, more than a billion people globally welcomed the Year of the Rabbit (and in some cases the Year of the Cat) in celebration of the Lunar New Year. Celebrations included riveting parades, eagerly anticipated red envelopes, and eating delicious food with family. In honor of Lunar New Year, we've taken a look at how Asian brands are impacting CRE in the U.S. this week.

Bobalicious: Bubble Tea Popping up Nationwide

You may have seen the ubiquitous boba chewy brown gummy-like balls all over the place, particularly favored by Gen A and Gen Z as they walk through malls.  While traditionally added as a topping to black tea, boba can now be found in coffee drinks, Thai tea, fresh milk, and even fruit juices.  Along with the original boba, there is also popping boba in fruit flavors and mini-sized boba as well.

It’s Boba Time is having some nice YoY increases in traffic, and even saw an uptick in the cold month of December.  This could be due to its extensive menu of over 140 items, including hot drinks such as Lavender Milk Tea Latte and Honey Yuzu Tea.  Boba Guys had YoY increases for the first half of 2022.  Meanwhile Boba Loca saw growth in January and June compared to last year.

Asian-themed Eatertainment: Benihana, Kura, Gyu-kaku, and Gen Korean BBQ

“Eatertainment” within Asian cuisine is another highlight.  Whether it be a Benihana chef tossing a shrimp tail into his chef’s hat or Kura’s gamification of inserting plates to unlock videos or the latest Bikkura Pon prize, visiting these restaurants ensure you have both dining and entertainment in one visit.

Gyu-kaku, with its yakiniku dining, has over 700 restaurants worldwide, and is a social, lively experience where you cook on your table’s personal grill.  During the fall of 2022, it saw YoY growth.  Benihana, one of the original eatertainment restaurants, saw an increase in visitation in December.  We mentioned Kura as one of the fastest growing publicly-owned franchises in our last weekly update.  

Gen Korean BBQ House is another one to watch.  With all things Korean entering the zeitgeist, from Squid Game to BTS, Attorney Woo to Blackpink, Korean is one of the languages that has fast-growing interest as people are fascinated by K-pop, K-dramas, and other aspects of Korean culture.

Asian Food Strikes a Chord Across the U.S. with Diverse Food & Grocery Centers

One striking aspect of Asian-focused shopping centers in the US is how truly diverse in appeal they have become.  What once began as centers for ethnic communities looking to replicate groceries or cultural items from their homeland have truly become part of the American melting pot as people from all races come for authentic tastes.

Eden Center in Falls Church, VA is one of the largest Vietnamese-American shopping centers, yet over half of its visitors are White, and an equal portion of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians also visit.  Japanese Village Plaza and Koreatown Galleria, both near Downtown LA, similarly attract a broad swathe of Angelenos looking for fun street foods like imagawayaki or tteokochi.

Hmongtown Marketplace, in Saint Paul, MN, has nearly two-thirds of its foot traffic coming from White visitors.  It has an amazing origin story that shows how true grit helped one man start from a one-shop grocery store into dozens of stores and restaurants and up to 300 vendors at the farmer’s market during the warmer months.

The appeal of Asian cuisine at a food court is not to be underestimated.  At The Shops at Santa Anita, the concept of the Food Alley - based on the types of cuisines and stalls you’d see in a traditional street food alley in Asia - come alive.  One food anchor is Din Tai Fung, renowned for its juicy soup dumplings.  Part of the fun of eating xiao long bao is taking a small nibble of the dumpling skin and sipping the soup before popping the whole thing in your mouth.  At Hai Di Lao, the array of condiments and side dishes at the buffet bar is astonishing and allows you to customize the spice, salt, and sweetness level of your dipping sauces.  One of the most jaw-dropping moments is watching the noodle dancer expertly spin around while twirling noodles and then cutting them directly into your hot pot.  Meizhou DongPo brings over renowned Peking Duck chefs from China, and the restaurant is named after the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth DongPo pork belly.  Legend has it that this dish was invented by the famous poet Su DongPo, who got caught up in a game of chess and left his pork belly simmering away.   Dessert locations with a cult following like Uncle Tetsu’s Cheesecake also followed suit.

Rah-Rah for Ramen: JINYA Ramen

One fast-growing ramen chain to keep an eye on is JINYA Ramen.  With exponential growth and plans to open their 50th restaurant at the end of 2022, JINYA combines friendly waiters, customizable ramen, and delicious bar eats like chicken karaage.  JINYA’s thick, rich broth slowly simmers for 20 hours and includes mouth-watering flavors like tonkotsu black, spicy umami miso, and flying vegan harvest.  The chain has shown consistent positive YoY foot traffic, which is quite a feat when we see how volatile the restaurant category has been this past year.

Jinya’s spread across the country reveals the extent to which ramen has made inroads from its first outpost in Studio City, CA in 2010.

The locations in Buford, GA and San Jose, CA have the highest visitation, followed by Houston, TX. The Buford location opened in Nov 2021, and as part of the Exchange @ Gwinnett, a multi-use development, numerous new tenants have been added over time.  Topgolf, Andretti Indoor Karting and Games, a massive Rooms-To-Go showroom, Sprouts Farmers Market and several restaurants and lifestyle businesses opened at the site last year. This influx of customers has led to increased cross-shop, to Jinya Ramen’s benefit.

Specialty Asian Grocers Filling in Vacancies:  99 Ranch and H Mart

When 99 Ranch opened at Westfield Oakridge, its first mall location, in March 2022, it took the place of a Billy Beez kids' indoor playground, and in comparing the mall’s profile year-to-date with the prior year, we see some interesting shifts, most notably with increases in both foot traffic and visit frequency.

In addition, hourly visits have increased across the board, particularly in the evening, post-work.

At Ocean View Village in San Francisco, the H Mart has been so successful that it is expanding from its original 47,000 square feet to take over the adjacent 24 Hour Fitness space to become a whopping 74,168 square feet.  The food court has a variety of popular Korean eateries such as Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup, which serves up traditional Korean stews and braised beef short ribs that can be customized with sauces, spice, and add-ons. Left Wing Bar, specializing in Korean spicy fried chicken and beer, has nearly 400 locations across South Korea.  

For those wanting to mix a day at an indoor water park followed by yummy Korean food, look no further than American Dream, as they look to open an H Mart in 2023.

Asian Bakeries Making Sweet Dough: 85 Degrees and Paris Baguette

There was a time when specialties like boroh, a crispy pineapple-shaped danish, at 85 Degrees or silky roll cake at Paris Baguette could only be found in Asian communities, but now they’ve gone mainstream and can be enjoyed in a multitude of locations.

It seems inflation is not an issue when it comes to our communal love for all things baked. Both chains have managed to weather the downturn we’ve seen in many eateries that occurred mid-year once shoppers started tightening their belts, figuratively speaking.  But it appears the allure of fresh-baked goodies are too strong and as a result will have people loosening their belts instead.

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Caroline Wu

Director of Research,

Caroline brings expertise in retail, CRE, entertainment, media, CPG, and tourism, and specializes in synthesizing broad datasets into actionable recommendations for growth. She has worked as the US Director of Consumer Insights at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, VP of Retail Insights and Intelligence at Omnicom, and Senior Director at Kantar. Caroline holds an MA in Sociology from Stanford University and a BA in International Relations from Stanford University.

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