The culturally-themed specialty “mega market” and food hall concept is quickly becoming one of the hottest culinary trends. There is the Italian food theme park that is Eataly. There is Manhattan’s glorified French bar and bistro with take-home food items, Le District. Older than both of these, though, is the Torrance, California-based Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese supermarket chain and dining hall with locations throughout California and single locations in New Jersey and Chicago.
And that Chicago location is the closest thing Michigan has to its own Asian mega market. At least it was, until 168 Asian Mart opened in Madison Heights this spring.
The store, located in a massive strip mall off of John R that is also home to a Target, is 38,000 square feet of Asian specialty food items.
“I had [Fuji Market] across the street [from 168 Asian Mart] but it was way too small,” says owner Ricky Dong. “I wanted to build one that anyone could go to for anything they need and it would be one-stop shopping.”
And he’s not kidding: with between 20,000 and 30,000 products in the store, 168 Asian Mart has everything. There is an in-house bakery churning out all kinds of cakes and savory buns and other baked goods and pastries. Shoppers can buy a whole pig and have it butchered in-house, or buy whole fish and have them cooked there (selections include eel, sting ray, and various mollusks like squid and cuttlefish). There is a bubble tea bar; a food court that serves dim sum, Szechuan hot pot, noodle and dumpling soups, and fried rice; whole BBQ Peking duck to go; Chinese roast pork by the pound; Asian beers, wines (including Chinese cabernet), and the largest selection of sake you’re likely to find in the state; kitchen supplies; Asian health and beauty products; an Asian gift shop with various Hello Kitty items; a large produce section that emphasizes produce used in Asian cooking; and grocery items from major Asian ethnic cuisines – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino.
The store most heavily favors Chinese items, presumably in part because this is also owner Dong’s heritage – he immigrated from China in 1995 – but likely also because Chinese are the second-largest ethnic Asian group in metro Detroit (behind Indian).
Dong says there are many small markets in the area that carry Asian cuisine specialty items, but none that are large enough to carry the depth and diversity of product as 168 Asian Mart.
“You can find this kind of market in bigger cities like New York and Las Vegas,” Dong says. “In Chicago they have one that is a very traditional Chinese market, but this is the first traditional Asian market like this in the Midwest.”
He also says that it is not just the variety of product that sets his store apart, but also the design and presentation of the store itself.
“This is a more upscale style,” he says. “I’m trying to serve the community and make the community better. I run the business as a Chinese supermarket run the American way. I learned from the American style – [Americans] want [markets to be] wide open and clean – but inside is Asian food. Chinese markets are always tiny, and they don’t have this kind of atmosphere. [The equipment is the same as American supermarkets.] We bought everything from American Temperature Service, [a Novi-based company that sells commercial refrigeration systems]. Everything is the same style as a Kroger or Target.”
Dong chose Madison Heights because it is a central location for Asian people coming from Warren, Troy, Rochester, Bloomfield Hills, Sterling Heights, and everywhere else in the Tri-County area. “[Almost] everyone can drive to Madison Heights in less than 20 minutes,” he says. “[Being in Madison Heights] we can serve all counties – Oakland, Wayne, Macomb – at the same time.”
But customers are not coming just from the Tri-County area: Dong says he has customers driving from up to two hours away, from Ann Arbor and Toledo and farther still.
Dong has owned various food businesses throughout metro Detroit since 1998. His first business was China One in Detroit. Since then he has opened several more businesses throughout the area, including Samurai Steakhouse in West Bloomfield and Fuji Buffet, right next to 168 Asian Mart, in Madison Heights. In order to focus on 168 Asian Mart, he has sold off everything else except for Fuji Buffet, previously recognized by the Michigan State government as the most successful buffet in Oakland County.
“I can only concentrate on so many businesses,” he says. “I want to focus on what I’m doing.”
That said, if 168 Asian Mart proves successful, Dong will definitely consider opening a second location.