If you are Asian American, chances are you’ve either heard of or shopped at a 99 Ranch Market. While there is a plethora of existing grocery chains from Trader Joe’s to Ralphs in the U.S., none of these outlets compare to 99 Ranch Market when it comes to the variety and authenticity of Asian products.
“I’ve been coming to this grocery store for as long as I can remember,” says Albert Castillo, a Southern California resident of Filipino descent. “It’s just where we’ve always gone grocery shopping as a family. We would see our neighbors, friends from my soccer team and members of our church there.”
Asians are one of the fastest growing ethnic populations in the U.S., and 99 Ranch Market is poised to also continue expanding. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 20 million people in the U.S. trace their roots back to Asia, and the number of Asians in the U.S. has grown 72 percent since 2000. Since opening its first store 35 years ago, the grocery brand has become the largest Asian supermarket chain in the U.S. Today, 99 Ranch Market operates more than 50 stores, with locations in California, Texas, Nevada, Oregon, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington state, with each store carrying more than 15,000 unique product items that are sourced both locally and from around the world.
Founded by Roger Chen, 99 Ranch Market first opened its doors in 1984 just outside of Los Angeles in Westminster, California. His reason for opening the supermarket was simple: he missed home.
“Before 99 Ranch Market was founded, there was no place for the Asian communities to shop for quality and various kinds of specialty goods on a daily basis,” says Alice Chen, CEO and daughter of the founder. “My father missed the authentic flavors of cultural foods and the familiar settings of the marketplace back at home.”
Roger Chen coined the brand “99 Ranch Market” as a vision for success. “In Mandarin, ‘99’ is a homophone for longevity and good fortune,” says Alice Chen, “and the ranch market symbolized our founder’s promise to deliver the freshest products to the customers he served.” The Chen family’s commitment to constantly improving and providing the best products and services is echoed in their company slogan, “For 100, we try harder.”
“In Mandarin, ‘99’ is a homophone for longevity and good fortune, and the ranch market symbolized our founder’s promise to deliver the freshest products to the customers he served.”
As a startup supermarket, Roger Chen focused all his efforts on logistics. “Honestly, once the store opened, the community response to 99 Ranch Market was overwhelming, and with each additional store, we were introducing more neighborhoods to the concept of a large Asian supermarket,” says Alice Chen. From developing an internal logistics system and finding ways to expand product categories, to building larger distribution centers, Roger Chen worked to make sure their store was always fully stocked with authentic and fresh products.
99 Ranch Market exploded onto the supermarket scene, attracting many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants to shop at the store. It was only a matter of time before more stores would open in various neighborhoods around Southern California and beyond. As the supermarket expanded, the Chen family inevitably faced several obstacles during the growth stage.
“Our stores were more financially burdened than many of our competitors,” says Jonson Chen, chairman and son of the founder. “On average, we take more time to create and build out a new, comfortable shopping environment with curated products imported from faraway places. We don’t want to just throw products up on old shelves when we set up a new location.” Consistent cash flow, inventory keeping and mapping out the logistics for each item was a challenge for the Chen family.
The Chen family overcame these challenges by having the right financial tools available, such as using a line of credit for cash flow purposes, and by keeping good relations with all their vendors to ensure that none of their products were delayed or out of stock.
Today, the original founder, Roger Chen, is still active but no longer the head of the company. His two children, Alice and Jonson, have taken on the helm of leading 99 Ranch Market through an evolving industry and a new generation of shoppers.
“As technology advances, we are strengthening our collaboration with technological innovators such as Alibaba, Google and other companies to generate more effective and efficient means to provide premium products and services for customers,” says Alice Chen. For example, she says that they plan to provide mobile payment solutions to help reduce the checkout time for customers and use direct messaging and targeted social media ads to notify shoppers of deals at their local store.
The largest portion of 99 Ranch Market’s shopper demographic comes from Northern China, which is why their strongest sales growth comes from wheat-based products like noodles, dumplings and Chinese pancakes imported from China. Other popular items include internet-famous Asian snacks and live seafood. Fortunately, 99 Ranch Market has been able to keep their costs low despite higher trade tariffs.
“Our merchandisers develop and implement effective global sourcing strategies to ensure high quality on-time delivery and cost competitiveness, even in the face of a trade war.”
“Our merchandisers develop and implement effective global sourcing strategies to ensure high quality, on-time delivery and cost competitiveness, even in the face of a trade war,” says Jonson Chen. “We have solid relationships with local and international suppliers, so it eases up the burden that we’ve encountered through the trade war.”
Demand for Asian products seems to be on the rise as well, making up for any cost burden that the supermarket may have had to incur from the trade war. “Our supermarket has evolved from catering to the needs of immigrant communities, to meeting the demands of next generations,” says Alice Chen. “We’re seeing more shoppers look for trendy, as well as convenience-driven, products.” As the biggest Asian supermarket chain in the U.S., the Chen family believes it is their social responsibility to serve as a “home away from home” for their Asian American communities and act as a window to Asian cultures and cuisine for all other ethnic groups.
Both Alice and Jonson Chen recognize and understand the ebb and flow of changing consumer and market trends. Being tech-savvy and well-connected across various industries puts the two business leaders at an advantage. Jonson Chen, who works closely with business and real estate teams around the nation, is currently in the process of selecting a new site for the supermarket. Searching for a new site involves researching the economic development of the city, demographics and customers’ feedback.
To compete with e-commerce stores, Alice Chen spearheaded efforts to ramp up new online shopping features, in-store pickup and same-day delivery services. “Our efforts in cross-generational transition include online solutions,” she says. “We are now honored to offer more choices for where and how our customers want to shop.” In addition to strengthening their online presence and services, the Chen family has launched a food court feature called Cravings in select 99 Ranch Market stores to attract a growing number of millennial shoppers. From Afters Ice Cream to Portside Fish Co, the food court has a variety of trendy vendors.
“Our efforts in cross-generational transition include online solutions. We are now honored to offer more choices for where and how our customers want to shop.”
When it comes to longer-term goals, the Chen family is looking to one day open their own unique Asian eatery. By incorporating shopping and dining options for customers, the Chens are hoping to build a positive and comprehensive Asian experience for everyone. “We are committed to building places where people can meet, eat and shop,” says Alice Chen. “We’re proud to offer the opportunity for everyone to explore and experience Asian foods. With our new expansion strategy and efforts in our current cross-generational transition, we hope to continue growing 99 Ranch Market’s footprint across the country.”