The 99 Ranch Market in San Gabriel Square, Los Angeles, on May 20, 2017.
Food

How 99 Ranch Market became the biggest Chinese grocery chain in the U.S.

Mar 12, 2019

For many Chinese kids growing up on the West Coast of the United States, grocery shopping has always meant one thing: a trip to 99 Ranch Market.

The supermarket chain is ubiquitous in America’s largest Asian communities. Sure, there are plenty of stores that sell Asian groceries, but 99 Ranch (not Ranch 99, by the way) stands out for its sheer size: 51 stores across seven states, making it the largest Chinese supermarket chain in the United States. (By comparison, the largest Asian-American supermarket chain, Korean-owned H Mart, has 63 locations across 12 states.)

Like many immigrant establishments, 99 Ranch was born out of homesickness. The founder, Roger Chen, had just arrived in California from Taiwan when he opened his first store in 1984.

“Chen missed his hometown—the familiar sounds, the smells, and the food,” says Teddy Chow, vice president of marketing at 99 Ranch. “He wondered why he couldn’t shop for those foods and brands that were familiar from home here, in a grocery environment similar to his local American supermarket.”

Chen saw the need for a large Asian supermarket and filled it. He initially called his store 99 Price Market.

“In Mandarin, 99 is a homophone for longevity,” Chow says.

“Price” was later replaced with “ranch” because the word invoked freshness, according to Chow.

“We build the community, or the community builds around us.”

Today, 99 Ranch caters to not just Chinese immigrants, but also the broader Asian-American population, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, grew from 3.5 million in 1980—four years before the first 99 Ranch opened—to over 20 million in 2016.

“We’re a pan-Asian grocer,” says Jonson Chen, who’s inherited the chain from his father. “Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, people from all of Southeast Asia have found our market accessible.”

99 Ranch has become so associated with Asian communities that real estate agents use new store openings as the first sign of a growing Asian-American population in the area.

“We have that chicken-and-egg effect,” Jonson Chen says. “We build the community, or the community builds around us.”

Importing authenticity

Many customers go to 99 Ranch because the stores stock items they can’t find anywhere else. Recent immigrants especially are familiar with products from their home countries and unwilling to compromise when it comes to authenticity.

That means 99 Ranch frequently deals with producers overseas. Ensuring that each product is compliant with the often opaque health and safety standards of the United States is a job unto itself.

The company has dealt with these challenges by keeping much of the operation in-house. While customers may only see a market, behind the scenes is a network of farms, factories, and production facilities stretching from China to the United States, all company-owned to ensure even its production facilities in Asia adhere to U.S. regulations.

“We work with a variety of vendors big and small,” Jonson Chen says. “We literally have the guys who produce fresh tofu and soy milk deliver it every day in a minivan, all the way through the big Japanese conglomerates.”

The produce section of a 99 Ranch Market.
The produce section of a 99 Ranch Market. / Photo: 99 Ranch Market

While his father catered mostly to first-generation immigrants, Jonson Chen these days is focused on the many younger shoppers who have grown up in the United States with a taste for Western food and ingredients.

At 99 Ranch, that means stocking things like sauerkraut-flavored instant noodles and wasabi potato crackers.

“We’ve been doing a better job in terms of the cross-generational transition,” he says. “It’s not only good business practice, but an important way of setting 99 Ranch apart from the pack.”

And that makes sense for the family business, as it evolves from catering to the needs of an immigrant community to meeting the demands of the next generation.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

Chinese AmericansAsian America

Journeys: