In the shell of a former Lunds & Byerlys on St. Paul’s East Side, Ne and Son Dao have quietly opened their second Ha Tien grocery, a makeover that’s emblematic of the city’s shifting demographics.
Where there used to be ready-made meals and artisan cheeses, the Daos soon will sell the banh mi sandwiches that are so popular at their first Ha Tien. In the spot where flowers from Bachman’s were displayed are rows of Mexican candy and flavored soda.
The store at 1959 Suburban Av. appears to be one of the largest Asian markets in the Twin Cities. Its location, just off Interstate 94 at N. Ruth Street, is more convenient to shoppers in the eastern suburbs and western Wisconsin.
“I think we are in the middle of all the communities,” said co-owner Ne Dao. “Because this place is bigger, we want to specialize for everybody. I have a lot of Hmong customers. I try to get all the items that they need. I have Filipino customers, which I have their products already. I have Japanese products and Mexican products and African products.”
The building opened as a Byerlys in 1971. But as it continued to experience declining sales, Edina-based Lunds & Byerlys Inc. decided to close it in March. It sold the 50,000-square-foot building to the Daos in June for $4.8 million, including about $180,000 worth of equipment.
At the time, Lunds & Byerlys Chief Executive Tres Lund said the firm was happy the building was being picked up by “another independent retailer that has a passion for this neighborhood and a proven ability to meet and exceed the needs of their customers.”
David Livingston, a supermarket research analyst in Milwaukee, said ethnic groceries in many cities grow by acquiring property from retailers that are considered to be traditional. “The neighborhoods change and demographics change,” he said.
The first Ha Tien was opened by Son Dao and his parents on University Avenue in 1996, when there weren’t many Asian grocery stores in the Twin Cities to serve a growing wave of immigrants.
“We’ve been looking for a bigger location, a bigger parking lot for two years,” Ne Dao said. “This was a spot that I had my eyes on for so long.”
The new Ha Tien Supermarket opened on Nov. 29, but areas such as the bakery and the deli still are being refurbished.
Everything should be in full operation in time for a February grand opening. She said they hope to open a restaurant in the dining area near the front of the store, to be run by their son who recently finished culinary school.
The Battle Creek-Highwood neighborhood and the greater East Side of St. Paul have become melting pots of cultures. In Battle Creek, 21 percent of the population is Asian, 23 percent black and 11 percent Latino, according to census data from 2010 to 2014 compiled by Minnesota Compass. Ramsey County as a whole was only 0.2 percent Asian in 1970, but grew to be 12.4 percent Asian in 2011.
Ne Dao immigrated to the United States from Cambodia. Her husband, Son, came from Vietnam. After they met and were married in Minnesota, they took over the store from Son’s parents.
Larger traditional grocers, even those who have tried to expand their ethnic food offerings, are hard-pressed to compete with the variety of products that can be offered by specialty stores such as Ha Tien, said Jim Hertel, senior vice president of Willard Bishop, a retail consulting firm.
“The challenge that most of the bigger operators have is to try to vary the assortment and tailor it,” Hertel said.
Produce at Ha Tien includes hard-to-find fruits like makok from the Caribbean and pears from South Korea. In the meat aisle — alongside the standard poultry and seafood selections — are carefully wrapped packages of beef skin, chicken feet and an array of pig innards that are simply labeled “pork inside mix.”
Though some build-out work still is going on and boxes are piled on the floor in a few spots, Ne Dao said she has started to feel settled.
“This is home for me,” she said. “This is everything. All of the customers, they are so nice and friendly. They are just like family.”