The continent-spanning inventory of United Noodles, the pan-Asian grocery in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood, runs to more than 8,000 products from 15 countries plus Hawaii.
With more than 400 types of noodles and 50-plus kinds of soy sauce for starters, the store tests even the limits its own employees' encyclopedic knowledge of cultures and cuisines. "Nobody here speaks all the languages of the items that we sell," said co-owner Eric Fung.
To help serve a broader audience, Asian, non-Asian and a growing number of "foodies" eager to experiment with new ingredients, United Noodles is working to "demystify the Asian culinary experience," said Fung, who owns the store with his mother, Alice Fung, and co-founder Ramon Tan, who launched United Noodles in 1972 as a chow mein noodle manufacturer before it shifted to groceries in 1980.
"We need to empower our customers to be able to cook this cuisine without being daunted," Eric Fung said.
To that end, United Noodles offers weekend cooking demonstrations and samples to educate customers. The store uses social media, events and other outreach efforts to promote products, recipes and special items in its popular UniDeli in-store restaurant. UniDeli chefs answer questions about making dishes at home and locating ingredients in the store.
United Noodles is taking steps to improve the experience of both grocery shoppers and UniDeli diners, Fung said. Remodeling work will include adding wooden paneling to refrigerator cases and posting more signs to help customers find products.
United Noodles will expand its reach next year with the launch of an online store to distribute ingredients and educate consumers about Asian cooking, Fung said. The aim is to capitalize on United Noodles' standing as the largest pan-Asian grocer in the Midwest and build a national following through e-commerce, Fung said.
The depth and breadth of United Noodles' selection of fresh, packaged and frozen products, including meat, seafood and produce, reflects the diversity of the Twin Cities' Asian population, Fung said. That gives United Noodles a unique competitive position locally and nationally because ethnic markets typically focus on products from one country.
Today's changes are the latest chapter in the continuing evolution of United Noodles, which moved to its south Minneapolis location in 1980 and expanded what had been a small retail space into the beginnings of today's 15,000-square-foot grocery.
The focus on demystifying Asian cooking, the addition of the deli and other changes have come since Tan, 71, welcomed family friends Alice Fung and Eric Fung as co-owners in 2005. Eric Fung, 31, was a lawyer in Washington, D.C., when he decided to join his mother and "uncle Ramon" at the store, which he had grown up visiting.
"I'm very fortunate to have them helping me out," said Tan, who still works seven days a week at the store.
The store's new offerings, a statewide Asian population that rose more than 50 percent from 2000 to 2010 to more than 245,000, and interest from foodies all have helped United Noodles enjoy double-digit yearly growth since the recession, Eric Fung said.
The Fungs and Tan credited Eric's friend and classmate and former store employee, the late Andy Assell, with creating software that enabled the store's point-of-sale system, which he also installed, to read bar codes on imported products.
Longtime United Noodles customer Linda Tam, vice president of Koko Industries, the St. Paul-based parent company of Asian Max and other Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities, said she does personal and business-related shopping at the store.
"United Noodles is well organized, and I like the fact that they have selections other than Chinese, with Japanese, Indian and Thai [products]," Tam said. "You have to experiment."
The expert says: John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said he wouldn't recommend developing both a national online sales channel, which would involve online marketing and fulfillment processes that are different from United Noodles' present capabilities, and a local approach appealing to new customers at the same time.
"United Noodles may have room to further penetrate this segment," Stavig said. "With a centralized location near the Midtown Greenway and the [Blue Line-Hiawatha] light rail, there may be an opportunity to create a unique 'destination-type' experience that could appeal to foodies seeking to experiment with new healthy ingredients."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org