Lee is the owner of LOHAS Fresh Mart, a boutique Asian grocery store with four locations — Alhambra, Diamond Bar, Arcadia and Rowland Heights — around the San Gabriel Valley. The one in Alhambra is the flagship. It’s stunningly similar to the boutique grocery stores of Taipei.
Everything is neatly stacked. To the immediate left of the door is a pristine produce aisle. You might find bok choy from Riverside and all different sorts of organic mushrooms. Each fruit or vegetable has a sticker that indicates whether or not it is USDA-certified organic. Most of it is. Down the line are the proteins: meats and seafood are carefully marked with their source. There’s also an aisle dedicated to sauces made by small vendors in Taiwan.
My parents used to smuggle frozen milkfish in Styrofoam from Taiwan in our suitcases back in the early ’90s. This would’ve saved us a lot of trouble.
LOHAS is a stark deviation from your average Asian grocery store in the San Gabriel Valley, where neat piles and meticulously labeling practices aren’t necessarily a priority.
LOHAS stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, an acronym invented by American sociologist Paul H. Ray. It’s a term that is used widely in Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore, referring to a holistic lifestyle centered on green living; it champions products that are grown with minimal damage to the environment. Its adherents are a market segment that in 2012 purchased roughly $350 billion in goods and services worldwide.
Of course, what is healthy is subjective. Aesthetically, the store is a direct reflection of the Taiwanese interpretation of LOHAS: unblemished produce and beautifully packaged products. Behind all of that is the firm belief that organic foods are better for people.
“Taiwan is really leading the movement on organic foods and the environment,” Lee says. “Food-wise, it’s more modern than mainland China and it has been a trendsetter in cuisine because it did not go through the Cultural Revolution.”
“It has an authentic taste,” he says. “Reminds people of home.”
Though he created the store with Taiwanese people in mind, his customers are a mixture of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, typically in the wealthier income bracket. Like Whole Foods, LOHAS has higher prices than conventional grocery stores. But he’s noticed that people are willing to pay.
“You won’t see us handing out discount flyers or slashing prices like other Asian grocery stores,” he says. (Though there is a $2 every $20 purchase for “VIPS” advertised on the website.) “Our emphasis is on quality.”
His goal is to get LOHAS in almost every city in the San Gabriel Valley.
“It’s all about good ingredients. In Chinese, food is medicine and medicine is food. If it’s good, people will come,” he says.