“People call us the Asian Whole Foods,” Joseph Lee says.
Lee is the owner of LOHAS Fresh Mart, a boutique Asian grocery store with four locations — Alhambra, Diamond Bar, Arcadia and Rowland Heights — around the San Gabriel Valley. The one in Alhambra is the flagship. It's stunningly similar to the boutique grocery stores of Taipei.
Everything is neatly stacked. To the immediate left of the door is a pristine produce aisle. You might find bok choy from Riverside and all different sorts of organic mushrooms. Each fruit or vegetable has a sticker that indicates whether or not it is USDA-certified organic. Most of it is. Down the line are the proteins: meats and seafood are carefully marked with their source. There’s also an aisle dedicated to sauces made by small vendors in Taiwan.
The majority of the seafood comes from a popular company by the name of Tanhou, a reputable seafood supplier that raises fish in aquaculture operations in Taiwan’s Penghu County. Milkfish is one of the options. It's type of sole prized by the Taiwanese, so beloved that there’s a museum dedicated to the fish in Taiwan.
My parents used to smuggle frozen milkfish in Styrofoam from Taiwan in our suitcases back in the early '90s. This would’ve saved us a lot of trouble.
LOHAS is a stark deviation from your average Asian grocery store in the San Gabriel Valley, where neat piles and meticulously labeling practices aren’t necessarily a priority.
“I’d say about 30 to 40 percent of our products come from Taiwan. The produce and meats are local, though,” Lee, an immigrant from Taiwan, says. He came up with the store concept after realizing that most of his friends were buying their sauces from Whole Foods, even though that chain's selections are quite limited when it comes to Asian products.
LOHAS stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, an acronym invented by American sociologist Paul H. Ray. It’s a term that is used widely in Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore, referring to a holistic lifestyle centered on green living; it champions products that are grown with minimal damage to the environment. Its adherents are a market segment that in 2012 purchased roughly $350 billion in goods and services worldwide.
“LOHAS is basically like a green buzzword,” says Nate Maynard, a Taiwan-based environmental researcher. “Taiwan loves buzzwords. There are no NGOs here, which play a major role in regulating terminology. So LOHAS just stuck as a term for healthy lifestyles.”
Of course, what is healthy is subjective. Aesthetically, the store is a direct reflection of the Taiwanese interpretation of LOHAS: unblemished produce and beautifully packaged products. Behind all of that is the firm belief that organic foods are better for people.
“Taiwan is really leading the movement on organic foods and the environment,” Lee says. “Food-wise, it’s more modern than mainland China and it has been a trendsetter in cuisine because it did not go through the Cultural Revolution.”
That's probably an arguable position, but Lee says he noticed a demand for certified organic products within the Taiwanese community here in Los Angeles, and opened LOHAS with that particular customer segment in mind. The stores sell bunches of zongzi, a Chinese tamale that’s popular in Taiwan around the Dragon Boat Festival in the summer. They come in all sorts of flavors: pork, red bean, mugwort, vegetarian. And instead of microwavable pancakes or pizza in the frozen aisle, you’ll find packaged steamed buns and scallion pancakes from a well-known Taiwanese company. Lee says the scallion pancakes is one of the best sellers.
“It has an authentic taste,” he says. “Reminds people of home.”
Though he created the store with Taiwanese people in mind, his customers are a mixture of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, typically in the wealthier income bracket. Like Whole Foods, LOHAS has higher prices than conventional grocery stores. But he’s noticed that people are willing to pay.
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“You won’t see us handing out discount flyers or slashing prices like other Asian grocery stores,” he says. (Though there is a $2 every $20 purchase for "VIPS" advertised on the website.) “Our emphasis is on quality.”
His goal is to get LOHAS in almost every city in the San Gabriel Valley.
“It’s all about good ingredients. In Chinese, food is medicine and medicine is food. If it’s good, people will come,” he says.
300 W. Main St., Alhambra. (626) 300-3998, lohasfreshmart.com.