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Large Korean grocery coming

Chain eyes surging Asian population

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

H Mart, a chain of Korean and Asian supermarkets with a devoted following, plans to enter the region with a 51,000-square-foot superstore in Burlington, near Route 128 and the Burlington Mall.

Known for its well-stocked shelves of Korean and pan-Asian products and its sleekly designed stores, H Mart operates about 30 supermarkets in the United States and Canada, with six more in development, though the nearest outpost currently is in New York.

The chain is so popular that after its proposal was posted for tonight's Burlington Planning Board agenda, the town received several phone calls from people outside Burlington expressing support for H Mart.

"That doesn't happen often," said D. Anthony Fields, Burlington's planning director.

That H Mart picked Burlington over Chinatown, Allston, Quincy, or any of the other more urban locales where Asian food markets have concentrated is a sign of the growing population of Koreans and other Asians in the suburbs as well as of the appeal H Mart expects to have with consumers of all backgrounds, say several familiar with either the Boston-area Asian community or the H Mart proposal.

"It sounds like an interesting concept, and it's pretty popular from what I understand in some areas of the country," said Thomas F. Murphy Jr., a lawyer with Shea, Murphy & Gulde, who is representing H Mart's application. "Clearly there's a market out there for it."

H Mart has proposed renovating and filling the vacant building at 3 Old Concord Road, near the Middlesex Turnpike, that previously housed a Decathlon sporting goods and a La-Z-Boy furniture store. The company does not need Planning Board approval for the supermarket, but it must get a special permit from the board to operate a food court where shoppers can dine on sushi, barbecue, dumplings, and other specialties.

The Burlington Board of Health has recommended that the Planning Board approve that permit tonight, Murphy said. After lining up a building permit and other approvals, the company could start renovations in a few months and open H Mart within a year, officials said.

H Mart - the H stands for "healthy," "humane," "happy," and "heartful" - began as a single shop owned by an immigrant family in the Queens borough of New York in 1982. A spokesman for the company, now based in New Jersey, declined to comment for this story.

During the past quarter-century, H Mart has expanded into a national business selling fresh and exotic produce, seafood, and meat, as well as baked goods, packaged Asian foods, housewares, and products from Hello Kitty toys to $1,500 Samsung refrigerators specially made for kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish. It also sells mainstream supermarket staples. As a result, its clientele is not confined to Asian-American consumers; some people rely on H Mart for all their shopping, while others treat it as a shopping adventure.

In an article on Asian shopping centers, the Asian-American online newspaper GoldSea.com said H Mart is "the place you take non-Asian friends when you want to impress them with just how modern and sophisticated Asians are."

Elsewhere on the Internet, bloggers have professed their fondness for H Mart's free samples, broad selection, and mall-style food court.

Myong Sool Chang, editor of the Korean language newspaper Boston Korea and the bilingual BostonKorea.com website, said many in the Korean and Korean-American community have been hoping for a local branch of the chain.

Massachusetts has a growing Asian population, including a Korean population that is expanding and is not wedded to an urban enclave, said both Chang and Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Between 1990 and 2000, according to US census statistics, the state's Asian population grew 68 percent, to nearly 240,000.

Chang estimated the state's Korean and Korean-American population at about 30,000, including college and graduate students. He said the population has spread from urban areas to suburbs like Newton, where the Korean consulate is located, Lexington, and other places along Route 128 and beyond, making H Mart's highway location more important than its specific Burlington address.

Watanabe said H Mart's suburban move illustrates the popularity of Asian food and culture with a range of ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The largest stores in Boston, such as Super 88 and Ming's Supermarket, attract recent immigrants from multiple continents as well as US-born students, professionals, and well-versed cooks.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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