by Alissa Marchat/staff writer
Ethnic retailing is a bright spot in the supermarket industry, and One World Market believes that the Asian demographic is emerging as one of the brightest.
The Asian population in the U.S. has grown by 43 percent in the last decade, recently replacing Hispanics as the country’s largest immigrant group, the grocer says, and Asian-Americans spend 8 percent more on food eaten at home than the general population. Add to that the popularity of One World Market’s foodservice offering—which includes sushi, udon noodle bowls, bento boxes and other Asian specialties—among the general population, and the company has hit on a winning combination, according to Robert Bleu, president of True World Group, the New Jersey-based parent company of One World Market.
As a seafood conglomerate supplying what it says is 90 percent of all sushi restaurants in North America, True World says expanding into the Asian market was a natural fit. With One World Market locations in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Novi, Michigan, as well as several other Asian-focused food retail concepts, True World Group says it is poised to expand the brand to take advantage of both the Asian customer interested in at-home cooking and the non-Asian, eat-out customer looking for quality Japanese fare at a budget price.
“Our biggest footprint is fish distribution,” Bleu told The Shelby Report. “But we believe there’s a real opportunity in the Asian market space. It’s a very healthy business. It’s a healthy space for us to create value, and we’re putting serious effort into (building that Asian market).”
One World selects its market locations carefully, ensuring a balance of general population with immigrant population. Appealing to Asian groups through the market side of the business is no small part of One World’s success: “This group of immigrants has the highest education level and the highest net income of any tranche of immigrants that has ever come to the U.S., so they’re a really important group, coming from many Asian nations,” Bleu noted.
But it’s the success of the foodservice side that is really propelling the company forward.
“When we expended in Indianapolis, we had really explosive growth when we expanded the seating and the restaurant side. We had some really stellar growth there,” said Bleu, citing the 24 and 17 percent year-over-year growth that store experienced in the two years following a kitchen and seating expansion.
“It’s about a 5,000-s.f. unit right now, the whole thing,” he said. “They went from having 20-something seats to having 54 seats. And with that they had this massive growth in their restaurant dollars.”
Addition of a noodle concept and bakery
Immediate plans for expansion include new market locations and the addition of a ramen concept and a Japanese bakery to the company’s foodservice offerings. True World is being careful to ensure the new products are the real deal.
“We believe there’s a lot of potential in ramen, so I had our group’s corporate chef and another guy go to ramen school in Japan recently,” said Bleu, referring to Corporate Chef Doran Brooks and Chef Kozo Tomeda. “They’re working on a ramen concept that we’re thinking could be standalone and in our markets.”
Brooks also is spearheading the bakery concept.
“(He’s) a really talented baker who did the pastry program at Google, and he also worked at Pixar and Four Seasons. The guy is a high performer, and my direction to him is we want to have the best Japanese bakery in America,” Bleu said.
Bleu describes Japanese pastries as being similar to French pastries in appearance but with a little less sweetness. Some of the desserts One World shoppers have to look forward to include tiramisu and a green tea cheesecake.
True World is well on its way to launching these new concepts. When Bleu spoke with The Shelby Report in late January, the ramen concept was just a week or two away from launching, unbranded, in one of the company’s restaurant locations, AO Sushi, in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. With multiple locations, AO Sushi offers take-out, delivery, dine-in services and fresh seafood for preparation at home, depending on the location.
There is not yet a set timeline for the launch of the bakery, but Bleu says the company is “dashing forward” in its pursuit of that concept and is looking at potential locations in the Detroit suburbs. He also suggests that some of the company’s bakery items could be distributed to other operations in the future: “I was thinking we could start selling (our green tea cheesecake) to the distribution company, to other sushi restaurants. It’s really good…So some of these things might transition.”
In the meantime, True World hopes to add bakery offerings to all of its locations.
“We are certainly looking at opportunities to do both restaurants and Asian markets that would include a food court and a bakery,” he said. “Or certainly a full bakery offering, if not baking everything there onsite. Because our present locations are not that large square footage-wise, we’re thinking about having a central bakery and then delivering daily, fresh-baked products to each of our locations—at least around Detroit.”
True World’s vision for the future of One World Market includes locations with a larger footprint, featuring Asian groceries, a full foodservice offering and a bakery that acts as a coffee shop-type destination for consumers.
Catering to an increasingly savvy consumer base
While sending employees across the globe for training in ramen-making may sound extravagant, the increasing popularity of ethnic cuisines among the general population is making for some very savvy customers looking for an authentic product. Bleu points to a telling interaction he had with some young consumers as evidence.
At the company’s sushi store in Buffalo Grove, he was sitting with a Jewish mom and her two sons, who were about 10 and 13. The mom said, “My two sons want to come here five days a week, but my husband can’t handle it, so we’re only coming three.”
When Bleu asked what the company could do to earn those additional two days of business, the boys told him the problem had been that the sushi rice didn’t contain enough vinegar—but that the location had recently improved in that area.
“These are suburban Jewish kids, and (they are) giving a very sophisticated sushi critique,” Bleu said, emphasizing the importance of having “a broad Asian offering while having a real, authentically good offering.”
True World hopes to draw on the popularity of its foodservice offerings to bring some of those savvy foodservice customers to the market side of its stores. There is a real interest, especially among younger consumers, in making sushi at home, Bleu says.
“We’re thinking about how we make that available to the consumer…and ways we could make it easy to do your own home program and be able to successfully make good sushi rice,” he said.
One way the markets are working to accomplish that is through in-store classes, but the stores have been limited in their ability to host those classes because “they get too busy,” said Bleu. With the expansion of the concept and the addition of new locations, there may be more opportunities for One World to offer classes in the future.
The company also is looking at ways to educate general population shoppers on the food safety aspect of preparing sushi.
“Right now we sell a lot of cut, sushi-grade fish. It’s the very highest quality; if you’re going to eat it raw, the quality has to be really good,” Bleu said. “We’re thinking that we should actually be promoting that seafood department to the community where those markets are located.”
The company also is looking at the possibility of launching a website, with the help of its corporate chef, outlining the “dos and don’ts” when it comes to preparing sushi at home.
While consumer crossover from the foodservice side to the market side—and vice versa—certainly could be a boost to business, One World has found plenty of success within its niche.
“The two different targets hedge each other,” Bleu said. “It’s healthy to have multiple customer bases.”
*Editor’s note: This story appears in the March 2017 print editions of The Shelby Report. It is part of a monthly Foodservice@Retail feature.