When Diamond Bar's Alpha Beta market closed in the mid-1990s, the South Diamond Bar store stood vacant for nearly a decade.
Then, in 2007, an exciting Korean market entered the scene: .
This market was not just another branch, but H Mart's flagship store, accompanied by three other locations, including Irvine.
The store's entry came in tandem with a surge in the area's Asian population, with 52.5 percent of Diamond Bar residents and 63.6 percent of Walnut residents claiming Asian ancestry in the 2010 Census.
At 45,000 square feet, the Diamond Bar location sells over 500 produce items, making this market an attraction not just for Korean shoppers, but for all Asian shoppers, from Bangladesh to Jakarta.
Show me the produce
Diamond Bar residents Mike and Eunice Baldesare said they shop at H Mart every week.
"We really appreciate the prices of the fresh produce," Eunice said. "They are the best around for the quality and variety."
Manager In Hyuck Hwang said that the secret to the success of H Mart having fresh and organic fruits and vegetables at low prices is negotiation.
"We work hard at negotiations with local producers," Hwang said. "We know our customers demand high quality, and organic produce."
Hwang said the chain verifies that its certified organic food comes from is certified organic land, and then H Mart buys the entire crop.
"It is a lot of work,” Hwang said.
Hwang said H Mart buys at container prices, not boxes or pallets. While this keeps some smaller farmers out of the loop, it guarantees H Mart a continuous supply of the produce shoppers are used to seeing, Hwang said.
"It is hard to negotiate this for a chain as large as H Mart," Hwang said.
Hwang also said the decision to sell produce loose allows customers to better fit purchases to their budgets and needs.
"The customer should decide how many carrots they need, or how many apples," Hwang said. "Most of our produce is sold this way. It keeps prices down for the consumer, and is better for the environment."
Hwang also said that the store's 32- and 36-degree cooling systems can keep a large stock of produce fresh.
And H Mart is a store that makes its produce known. The entrance is surrounded by the daily specials, often melons and citrus, and once inside, the expanse of produce is striking.
Piles and piles of beautifully colored fruits and vegetables, herbs, chopped garlic, fresh local soy milk, over 10 different brands of tofu in every imaginable consistency, sprouted, organic, firm, soft — you name it.
Fresh garlic and ginger is what Walnut resident Jenifer Stevens said brings her back.
"I also love the wild sea bass," Stevens said. "It is my favorite fish, and the prices are the best I've seen anywhere."
One arm full of groceries
The H in H Mart is short for "Han Ah Reum," which means, simply, "One Arm Full of Groceries."
Since starting in 1982 in Queens, New York, the chain has expanded its reach and the armfulls of groceries that it supplies.
And that turnover is part of what allows H Mart to keep fresh produce. South Korea continues to be one of the healthiest nations in the world and it keeps a fitting diet.
At H Mart, most carts are at least half-filled with fresh produce to create dishes stocked with vegetables.
Fish at H Mart is brought in from the world-famous Fulton Fish Market in New York City and Hwang said the store is looking to add a live fish tank as well.
"We now offer live shellfish, including oysters, but we will be adding live lobster and shrimp," Hwang said.
Out of concern for keeping any fishiness a bay, Hwang said they keep the water-faring creatures toward the back.
H Mart also provides exotic meats and cuts such as Kobe beef, Angus, duck, rabbit, lamb, goat, tripe, feet, etc. Not all are sold fresh, but the varieties are endless (the razor-thin ribeye on a skewer is ready on the grill in minutes!)
You can also buy ready-marinated galbi (beef short-ribs) and bulgogi (marinated beef), or chicken all ready for the grill. If you don’t want to cook at all, there are also pre-made side dishes from the kitchen.
Multi-grain rice, steamed sweet potatoes, seaweed, marinated fish cake, kimchee, noodles, corn on the cob, marinated spinach, and an assortment of daily treasures are also on hand to provide a whole Korean meal for a fraction of the price of eating out.
One of my personal favorite parts of H Mart is the rice section: there is short grain, medium grain, and long grain. There is sweet rice, multigrain, and various cereals. Your color choices are white, brown, black, red, and organic. There are also more varieties of noodles than you could eat in a week: wheat, rice, acorn, sweet potato, and more.
The store also has a cookware and utensils section. If you don’t have a rice cooker yet, consider it. I bought one years ago and use it to steam vegetables, cook oatmeal, and brown rice never comes out mushy.
The warmer keeps the rice hot for 24 hours, add an egg in the morning for breakfast or even some brown sugar and milk as a cereal. A much better after school snack than some other things.
There is even a Cereal Bar at the back end of the store. The special process of dehydration unique to a Korean supplier provides high quality, nutritious vegetables and cereals that are custom combined specifically for your nutritional needs.
Staff at H Mart will list your physical requirements, whether you need to lose or gain weight, have high blood pressure, diabetes, liver dysfunction, stomach problems or other ills, and specially combine a unique cereal just for you. It is recommended that you eat this cereal every morning, and this is made easy if you use your new rice cooker!
Stores within a store
H Mart also provides an onsite jeweler, makeup artist and retail, gift shop, bakery, and three different mini-restaurants within its walls.
Points of interest include the bakery — which is owned by CJ Foods, whose parent company is Samsung (yes, that Samsung!).
The Kimbap (Korean sushi rolls) is the most popular shop in H Mart, being that the owner holds a Master’s degree in culinary arts, and his Kimbap is the top seller.
Kimbap is the cooked version of sushi. The beef Kimbap is most popular, and for under $6.00 is a great meal, the fishcake Kimbap is also delicious.
With all that HMart provides in Diamond Bar, they also are involved in scholarship programs, community service, youth development, and also support a Leukemia Foundation.