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The rise of the online Asian grocery store

These retailers are filling a need left by many traditional supermarkets, whose “ethnic” aisles are unable to cater to the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S.
Image: The biggest operator in the Asian online grocery space, Weee! has raised over $400 million since its founding.
Weee!, the biggest operator in the Asian online grocery space, has raised over $400 million since its founding.Weee!

When Larry Liu moved from Shanghai to Sacramento, California, in 2003 for his job at Intel, he realized the nearest Chinese supermarket was almost two hours by car. With the “ethnic” aisles in traditional brick-and-mortar supermarkets leaving plenty to be desired, Liu resorted to networking with like-minded neighbors via the messaging app WeChat to find some of the foods that reminded him of home.  

By 2015, he launched Weee!, a platform for group-buying beloved foods such as pork bellies or fresh-caught Pacific black cod from local purveyors. But it still didn’t fully solve the issue of convenience since customers would have to stop by a neighbor’s garage to pick up their goods. “You’d still have to drive half an hour to 99 Ranch or H Mart to buy green onion and bok choy, and Costco for the milk and eggs,” said Liu, who pivoted Weee! to be a one-stop online shop for authentic Chinese products and supermarket staples in 2017. 

The Fremont, California-based company has since expanded to include more than 4,000 Asian and Hispanic products ranging from Taiwan cabbage and Korean-style pork belly to taro-flavored boba lattes and Lay’s cucumber-flavored potato chips. The biggest operator in the Asian online grocery space, Weee! has raised over $400 million since its founding. In March, Bloomberg valued the company at $2.8 billion

Larry Liu.Weee!

Weee! and a crop of other Asian online grocery retailers, including Umamicart, Quicklly, Sarap Now and Kim’C Market, have entered the marketplace in recent years, offering a historically underserved community of 22 million people unparalleled access and convenience to the products they love. Experts say large-scale demand for home delivery fueled by the pandemic, the growing popularity of Asian foods in the U.S. and that mainstream grocery chains haven’t responded to a diversifying American population have helped entrepreneurs find success serving their communities directly at their doorstep. 

New York-based Umamicart, known for its discerning product curation and hyping of Asian American-owned brands, debuted in March and recently raised $6 million in a seed fundraising round. The online grocery store was named one of the fastest growing direct-to-consumer brands by Business Insider and has seen 313 percent in quarter-to-quarter web traffic growth since its launch.  

Umamicart’s co-founder and CEO Andrea Xu said the company is using the capital to expand its team and catalog, and eventually hope to go national. The online Asian grocery store currently offers same-day delivery in New York City and select Northeastern states of items such as Fly by Jing’s Sichuan chili crisp, Nguyen Coffee Supply’s ground coffee and holiday roast duck kits.    

Part of Xu’s vision was to have a decidedly Asian American brand, one that didn’t employ Asian language characters or exotic stereotypes. “We can build something that celebrates these products and flavors but we don’t have to conform to some concept about being foreign,” said Xu, a “third-culture kid” who was born and raised in Spain by Chinese parents and moved to New York more than 10 years ago. 

While Xu enjoys serving Asian American shoppers like herself, she said non-Asian consumers represent a “big chunk” of their customer base thanks in part to a desire for authenticity and the mainstreaming of Asian food in the U.S. “I think we’ll continue to see that trend because Asian food is part of American cuisine at this point,” said Xu. “Nobody thinks sushi is something exotic.” 

Asian online grocery retailers have entered the marketplace in recent years, offering a historically underserved community of 22 million people unprecedented access and convenience to the products they love.Weee!

Chicago-based Quicklly, an online South Asian and Indian marketplace providing access to more than 10,000-plus grocery ingredients, tiffins, meal kits and fully prepared Indian meals for delivery, has seen 1500 percent growth since the onset of the pandemic, according to co-founder Keval Raj.

“The South Asian grocery market is a $9 billion industry in the U.S.,” said Raj, who noted that the affluence of many South Asian customers means they will opt for the convenience of Quicklly’s online platform over trying to track down ingredients from a variety of places. “The assortment we carry — no one carries that.” Raj said buying ethnic groceries online is the new normal. “We have seen a big shift in the market in terms of user base and capital injection as well,” Raj said.  

Traditional Asian brick-and-mortar chains like H Mart have also seen a surge in their online business during the Covid era. “Every month has a new record,” said Young Park, e-commerce manager for H Mart, which currently offers more than 4,000 products for shipping and delivery. Park said they expect the trend to continue post-pandemic. “We have invested in e-commerce like [robotics specialist] AutoStore for fast handling and delivery to satisfy customers’ online orders.” 

Online grocery sales grew 54 percent in 2020, to $95.82 billion. By 2026, online’s share is projected to account for 20 percent of the market. Experts believe that “ethnic” groceries are not a mere trend, but the new normal. And while plenty of Asian American shoppers may prefer to handpick their favorite melon or cut of meat in-person, millions of customers simply don’t have access to Asian supermarkets or neighborhood stores because they live in parts of the country that cannot sustain them. 

Asian American entrepreneurs like Liu don’t see their online stores as taking away business from small neighborhood shops, but rather from mainstream mega chains whose “ethnic” aisles are seen as antiquated and unable to meet the needs of the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. 

By putting those needs front and center to their business model, Weee! currently serves hundreds of thousands of customers, offering local delivery of fresh produce, meat and seafood in 20-plus metropolitan markets. More than 2,500 shelf-stable products are available for nationwide shipping. The e-grocer has executed more than 10 million orders and plans to expand its number of categories and ethnic foods and will serve the Canadian market in the future.  

Liu, the company’s CEO, said customers are grateful when they realize they can order their favorite hard-to-find White Rabbit Creamy Candy from China or Maharlika Food’s Filipino-style flat fish balls that connect them to their culture from the online grocer.

“Food is more than just a chore or a source of energy — it should be exciting, it should be shared among friends and family and it’s closely tied to our identity and cultural origin,” said Liu. “I believe what we have in mind will be the future of food.”