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Want to see how Utah’s changing? Look to its grocery stores

While the future H Mart location in West Jordan is still under construction, seen here on May 15, 2024, the company is already hiring staff in preparation for a grand opening later this year.
Sean Higgins
While the future H Mart location in West Jordan is still under construction, seen here on May 15, 2024, the company is already hiring staff in preparation for a grand opening later this year.

Unlike some states in the West, Utah hasn’t had a multicultural reputation. But fast growth is changing that. In 1990, only 10% of the population identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Thirty years later, data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute said that number stood at 23% — making for a “New Utah.

An easily visible sign of that shift are new grocery stores and the foods they bring to town. Filipino-American Kathleya Gracida felt the difference, or the lack of, when she moved to Salt Lake City 24 years ago.

“I grew up in Anaheim,” she said. “So, like, everywhere you go in the corner, this is like in the early 80s, you know, there's Asian stores. So I moved here in 2000 and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there's no Chinese place other than two restaurants on State Street.’”

H Mart, the country’s largest Asian grocery chain, will soon open its first Utah location in West Jordan. It’s still under construction, but they are hiring staff for an opening later this year. It’ll join South Salt Lake’s Chinatown Supermarket, which bills itself as “Utah’s largest Asian Market.”

It’s not only the place for fresh produce and specialty Asian ingredients like lotus root or shrimp-flavored potato chips, there are also bustling restaurants that serve everything from hot pot to sushi.

“I love that it's like a centralized location for Asian food,” said John Nguyen, who moved to Utah from Virginia about a year and a half ago for work and to be closer to the outdoors. He finds himself at the market “two to three times a week at the minimum.”

He said places like Chinatown Supermarket help him feel more in-tune with the greater Utah Asian community.

“Me being Vietnamese American, I do love coming out here to eat at places like One More Noodle House and the pho place and going to the grocery shop here to get things that you wouldn't find at, like, Smith's or Trader Joe's.”

For Gracida, now the chair of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, H-Mart’s arrival to Utah shows that the Asian community continues to thrive.

“We're hard working people,” she said. “We know we want success. We want to improve our lives and not just our lives now, but we think about the future.”

You might not think of it, but there’s a good chance the grocery store is one of the places you spend the most time and money outside of your home and work.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. consumers spent an average of 11.3% of their disposable personal income on food in 2022. For a family of four, that can be somewhere between $900-$1,500 dollars per month.

Today’s grocery stores are also trying to be something else: a meeting place for Utah’s growing community. Stores can offer a space to connect and find nostalgic tastes and smells.

“Having a place like this, it's fun,” said Ngyuen. “It's just a nice, relaxing area for people to congregate at. It's familiar. I think it's the big part of it.”

While online ordering and grocery delivery took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, industry insiders say people are now coming back to brick and mortar supermarkets.

“Certainly, the community plays an important part of it where we're obviously trying to do things inside the store. They give people a purpose,” said Associated Food Stores Vice President of Store Development Steve Miner.

Associated Food Stores run some of Utah’s smaller grocery chains like Maceys, Dan’s and Fresh Market.

“We call it ‘the rides.’ You know, we're bringing things back into the store that we feel will bring a gathering place for people in the community,” Miner said.

That gathering place can come in the form of expanded sit-down areas, cafes or even restaurants like those found at Chinatown.

When I think about going to the grocery store, I know what nights of the week or the weekend, what times of the weekend, I'm likely to see some of my friends and neighbors,” added Tina Murray, Corporate Affairs Manager for Smith’s. The chain is one of Utah’s largest employers and operates under the nationwide Kroger grocery store umbrella.

To her, the grocery store plays an important part in the fabric of each community it serves.

“People come together over food, whether that is in their homes or in restaurants. People come together for food in the grocery stores as well.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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