The cuisine of more than 30 countries packed into a 10,000-square-foot space. That's what you'll find at Fresh International Market, an East Lansing grocery store that recently reopened following a year of renovations. Originally called Oriental Mart and dealing mainly in East Asian ingredients, the shop closed in March 2020 to expand in both size and scope. It reopened at 2800 E. Grand River Road in February and quickly gained a new set of shoppers, stocking ingredients from the Middle East, South Asia and other regions across the globe. Owner Bowen Kou said the remodel cost around $2.8 million, including the price of a neighboring commercial space where he built a dine-in food court and Taiwanese bakery. Kou opened the original Oriental Mart in 2012. He had just earned a supply chain management degree from MSU, where he was an international student from China. Kou has since expanded to Illinois and Indiana, operating five stores total. All but one are in college towns, including a location near Purdue University and two at the University of Illinois. He plans to open two more stores soon, in University City, Missouri, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The East Lansing location sets itself apart with hard-to-find meats, fish, produce and household goods that competitors either do not offer or sell at a higher price than Fresh International Market. Kou stocks his stores through an American supplier and does not import anything directly from other countries, he said. "You go to Walmart, Meijer and Kroger to see the Asian aisle, but you never see the Asian store where everything is products from there," said Anthony Aubrey, a frequent visitor. New shoppers have helped the store stay afloat despite the loss of its built-in student market due to COVID-19. Before the pandemic and renovation, most Oriental Mart customers were Michigan State students, Kou said. "A lot of students are off campus because of the pandemic, so we lost a lot of student customers, but we began getting more local customers," Kou said. He expects sales to grow when students return to campus full time.
A dine-in food court to keep up with the competition
As part of the renovation, Kou added a sit-down food court with stands serving Taiwanese dishes, fresh meats and seafood. The move will help Fresh International Market compete with an increasing number of grocery stores pitching themselves as cafes and community gathering places. Case in point: A Whole Foods opened next door to Oriental Mart in 2016 with its own interior beer and burger spot, Green State Bar and Grill. "Nowadays, (that's) more popular for young people (especially) in East Lansing, who has a lot of students," Kou said. "That's the idea for the renovation."
Among the fare available in the food court are duck feet, cuttlefish and Taiwanese bubble tea. The store also added a seafood counter where Deon Foster, an avid home cook, comes for sushi-grade fish and advice from staff. "They have a great group of people there (who can) tell me about the different fish I can use," he said. The food court's daily samples help Foster get a sense of what an item tastes like before he formulates a meal around it, or look up recipes containing a new sample he liked. Some local restaurant owners also shop for hard-to-find ingredients at Fresh International Market, Kou said. "Eating is the most dominant thing we do in our lives," Foster said. "The beauty of this place is that you can be a modern-day explorer and it has to be valued. You can research the foods and how to use them."
Rare ingredients and tips from in-house experts
Foster's family regularly visits the East Lansing store, sometimes making a game of its vast, unique selection. "We try for something new and we all grab something and sometimes it's not things we like. It's fun for us to go in and try things we've never tried before," he said. One such prize Foster found is buticha, a spicy, Ethiopian hummus.
Aubrey uses the store to source ingredients for his own versions of popular restaurant dishes. Pho, for instance a Vietnamese soup consisting of rice noodles, herbs and meat calls for rock sugar. Aubrey struck out on the item at Walmart and Meijer, but found it at Fresh International Market. White and brown sugar, he said, do not come close to the taste.
Both Aubrey and Foster also noted Fresh International Markets prices, which are often lower for specialty items than local competitors'. "For two of the king oyster mushrooms at Fresh, you pay $2, but at Horrocks, it's $10," Foster said. "Mochi is expensive at Whole Foods, but (at Fresh), it's much, much cheaper." Aubrey suspects Fresh International Market's customer based expanded and will continue to grow thanks to home cooks experimenting with new recipes during the pandemic. He and his wife visited multiple new grocery stores in the past year to broaden their own culinary horizons. "It was one of those stores that was missing in the area. It's only 20 minutes away from any part of Lansing," Aubrey said. "It's close enough to where you can access it and people appreciate that it's not an hour away and unattainable."