As a kid, Bona Ku spent his weekends helping at his family's Dragon Star Oriental Foods store in St. Paul, doing whatever odd job the grocery required.

Decades later, there's even more work to manage. His family now has around a half-dozen locations across the metro and a wholesale business, just one example of how the Twin Cities' Asian markets have boomed in recent years.

Perhaps the best example of that is the family's most recent store, Empire Foods, which opened in March in the nearly 200,000-square-foot former Walmart in Brooklyn Center. It's one of several Asian food emporiums that have cropped up in vacant retail spaces including closed mall department stores in the area.

Asian groceries are not new to the Twin Cities, but it's clear they have developed beyond the small, family-owned shops dedicated to one or two specific communities.

For some, that means bigger stores with more products from various Asian and other immigrant cultures, like cuts of meat for Korean barbecue to soup bases for Chinese hot pot. Others have incorporated more prepared foods, from Instagram-able boba and Korean corn dog stalls to full-on food halls.

Establishments like this have existed since the 1980s on the coasts — specifically Korean grocery chain H-Mart and Taiwanese 99 Ranch Market — where there are larger populations of Asian Americans. Minnesota's Asian population is only a fraction of a place like California, but the fact that locally owned stores are employing a similar model shows how the recent rise of Asian pop culture — from K-dramas to mochi ice cream — has made Asian markets widely appealing endeavors.

"Bigger boxes allow for a larger variety of items available to display for the consumers," said Ku, 37, who works as a general manager at several of his family's stores. "It creates a better shopping experience."

Asia everything

Last month, developers announced a concept called Asia Village at Northtown for the former Herberger's at the Blaine mall that would have groceries and dining. The partners behind that effort also launched the upscale Asia Mall food hall and market in an old Gander Outdoors store in Eden Prairie. The bazaarlike Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul will have a second location at the empty Sears store at Maplewood Mall, and shoppers are also eagerly awaiting the opening of the Enson Market grocery store and Ate Ate Ate food hall at the old Gordman's in Burnsville Center.

"The way that some of these Asian supermarkets have evolved over the years to incorporate more experiential components of sit-down restaurants or desserts or bubble tea are a way that have made it more accessible to Americans and have helped grow their popularity," said Amanda Lai, food industry director at Chicago retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle.

Connie Li was still in college and didn't know much about running a business when she helped her brother open a small Asian grocery store at the corner of Como and Snelling avenues in St. Paul in the 1990s. They continued to move into larger spaces until Li and her family eventually went into the wholesale business selling to restaurants. Fast forward almost 20 years, and Li and her husband are in the process of outfitting a cavernous, 100,000-square-foot St. Paul warehouse they opened last year as part residential Asian grocery store and part wholesale and restaurant supply distributor.

"I've always wanted to have a space like this, like Costco," Li said.

Customers at Shanghai Wholesale Market Place off Prior Avenue in St. Paul can buy beef as small as a 10-ounce bag of meatballs for pho or as big as a 90-pound box of tenderloin. There are plans to open a showroom for kitchen equipment as well as a coffee shop and noodle bar.

Li said she wants to elevate the quality of the typical Asian grocery store with better fixtures, easy organization and superior selection. She also has been intentional in making the store welcoming to various cultures, including presliced and rolled beef for hot pot alongside halal meat processed according to Islamic beliefs.

"I think it's more diversified," she said. "I think it's a good thing."

Ethnic supermarkets in the United States have experienced a burst of growth since the pandemic. According to global market research firm IBISWorld, U.S. ethnic supermarkets' revenue has grown to $57.6 billion over the past five years.

The growing immigrant population, especially within the Hispanic and Asian communities, has increased the demand for ethnic ingredients. For many, these stores are not just places to grab hard-to-find produce or whole fish, but they represent homes away from home with familiar sights, smells and tastes.

The average American consumer is also turning more to ethnic supermarkets thanks in part to the popularity of a wave of Asian culture exports like K-pop and a surge in more adventurous home cooking.

"During the pandemic, you had a captive audience who was experimenting more with various cuisines," said Lai, who grew up in Maple Grove when there wasn't as many Asian grocer options.

Bigger and better

The increase in Asian grocery stores in Minnesota also reflects the growth of the Asian Pacific population, which most recently numbered just more than 310,000 residents, according to 2022 census data the Minnesota Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans compiled.

Another contributor to the growing popularity of Asian markets: TikTok. Many shoppers share new foods or unique stores through reviews that can gain steam on video apps, including Instagram.

Kathia Vang, 29, of Brooklyn Center posted on TikTok about her first trip to Empire Foods when it opened. She was impressed with the lower prices on meat and how many items were available in bulk. That's needed when she helps with large traditional Hmong events for her husband's family.

Many local Asian stores, including Empire Foods, have also focused on store layout and item labeling so those used to American grocery stores and English product descriptions can find what they need. That includes Vang, who is Hispanic.

"When I first became a nyab [a Hmong daughter-in-law], I don't think I could have gone to the store and easily bought whatever it was that we needed," Vang said. "Everything is way more organized [now] and user-friendly for those who don't necessarily know how to shop there or speak the language."

Arnab Chakladar — an English professor at Carleton College who regularly reviews restaurants and local grocery stores on his personal blog — said when he and his wife, who is Korean, moved to the Twin Cities from Denver almost 20 years ago, they couldn't find many options for ethnic ingredients. However, not only are there more options for his Indian and her Korean ingredients now, but a lot of times, they can also find them in the same store.

"The big stores like Dragon Star and Ha Tien, they all now have respectable Hispanic and Indian and East African stuff as well," he said.

In 2004, Toua Xiong opened Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, selling everything from pots to papaya salad to clothing to herbal products. Its hundreds of stalls quickly reached capacity, and the new secondary location at Maplewood Mall has ample parking and more space.

"The Maplewood Mall Sears is something that I have been looking for for a number of years," Xiong said.

While there will be some more modern elements, shoppers should still expect for the mall's market to feel "authentic" and serve as a place for "those who miss their homeland," he said.