Ethnic groceries fill vacuum in outer east side

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Quy Pham of Southeast Portland pushes a cartful of groceries to his car at the new Hong Phat store on 82nd Avenue near Burnside Street. It's one of two large Asian groceries on 82nd Avenue. It’s hard to miss the distinctive aromas of Asian foods even from the parking lot of Hong Phat, a new grocery store at the recently vacated Safeway on Southeast 82nd Avenue near Burnside Street.

Inside, the produce aisle is stocked with jackfruit, yam leaf, baby bok choy, Thai eggplant and other foods popular among the growing Asian immigrant population in Portland’s east side.

Hong Phat joins Fubonn Supermarket, another full-service Asian-oriented grocery 1.3 miles south on 82nd near Woodward Street, plus some smaller ones in the area.

And a third large grocer is negotiating to fill the site recently abandoned by Food 4 Less at 82nd and Powell Boulevard, about six blocks south of Fubonn. One rumored suitor is 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery chain based in Southern California.

Lou Elliott, whose real estate company manages the Powell Street Station retail center once anchored by Food 4 Less, says he can’t confirm or deny that 99 Ranch is the entity. But Elliott’s company is negotiating with a full-service grocer that he expects to lease the site, and he says it definitely will cater to the growing Asian clientele in the area.

“There has been a change from the standard grocery m odel to address the different ethnic groups in the neighborhood,” Elliott says.

The new grocery stores should solidify and expand the pan-Asian “Jade District” along 82nd that the Portland Development Commission and business leaders are promoting. And both new stores could address residents’ concerns about a dearth of fresh and healthy food vendors in Portland’s outer east side.

Nga Vu, who lives near Hong Phat’s first store in outer Northeast Portland, shifted to the much-larger Southeast store when it opened in late June. “I always go here,” says the immigrant from Vietnam, while carrying a bag of groceries to her car.

International offerings

There were no apples in stock last Friday in Hong Phat’s produce section, but there were plenty of other staples found in regular groceries. There were several varieties of Franz bread, for example, located right above the Bin-bin rice crackers.

Hong Phat also includes the H&L Cafe, a deli offering $3 Vietnamese sandwiches, salt and pepper squid, fried talapia and other ready-to-eat foods. There’s also an organic food section and sections for Korean and Hispanic foods, says Kevin Nguyen, an inventory specialist at the new store.

Nguyen estimates that more than half the customers so far are Asians, about 20 to 25 percent are white, and another 15 percent are other people of color.

The owner, Brendon Wang, dreamed of opening a larger store and providing more jobs for the Asian community, Nguyen says. Both men emigrated from Vietnam to Portland.

Some Portlanders have taken to calling 82nd Avenue the city’s New Chinatown, an acknowledgment that it has become a far more vibrant center for Chinese residents and merchants than Portland’s historic Chinatown. However, there also are many residents and business owners hailing from Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Laos and elsewhere, which is partly why the pan-Asian Jade District moniker was adopted to re-brand an area formerly known more for its used-car lots, prostitutes and drug dealers.

Food deserts?

In recent years, several East Portland residents have complained that traditional grocers are neglecting the outer east side beyond 82nd Avenue, creating what some call “food deserts.”

One of those critics is Nick Christensen, Lents Neighborhood Association chairman. Grocery stores like New Seasons won’t locate stores there because it doesn’t have enough college-educated residents that are the core of its clientele, Christensen says. “Without the college attainment rates that the bankers are looking for, we’re effectively red-lined out of new development,” he says. “Meanwhile, people will pay $4 for a gallon of milk at 7-Eleven because that’s their grocery store.”

Even the Fred Meyer on 82nd and Foster, which boasts a large organic produce section, has inferior produce, Christensen maintains. Instead, he shops at the Fred Meyer on 82nd and Johnson Creek, almost two miles to the south. “It’s night-and-day different,” he says.

“There are pockets where it’s difficult to find something other than a 7-Eleven,” Elliott agrees.

However, it’s not so easy for a developer to build a new grocery in the 20,000- to 50,000-square-foot range in the city of Portland, he says. It’s costly to remodel stores, Elliott says, and the city keeps adding requirements such as landscaped drainage areas in parking lots. “Half a dozen departments have to approve plans,” he says.

The Portland Development Commission has offered incentives for grocers to establish new stores in the outer eastside and other areas lacking good access to fresh food. While some discussions are ongoing, there have been no direct results yet from that initiative, says Shawn Uhlman, PDC spokesman.

The PDC is aiding the formation of the Latino-themed Portland Mercado on Southeast Foster Road and 72nd Avenue, which plans to open next year. And Walmart, the nation’s largest purveyor of organic produce, added a grocery last year to its store on Southeast 82nd and Holgate Boulevard. There’s also the Mt. Scott Market, a small market that is selling organic food at Southeast 101st Avenue and Foster Road.

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