Korea in Woodlawn

Mall: The owners of the new Seoul Plaza want to provide food and staples that the growing immigrant community found in their old homes.

March 12, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

When Steve Choi immigrated to Virginia from South Korea 33 years ago at age 11, what he missed most was the rice.

American rice was shorter and not as sweet and sticky as the rice he was accustomed to eating in Seoul.

Now, at age 44, Choi wants to make sure other immigrants can find food and other staples that remind them of home.

Tomorrow, Choi and his brother, Sam, will open Seoul Plaza, an international mall and grocery store, in an old J.C. Penney anchor store at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn.

The plaza is expected to help revive the mall, which had lost two of its anchors in the past several years. It also will help to serve a rapidly growing immigrant community in the Baltimore suburbs.

Along with the Grand Mart grocery store, Seoul Plaza will include 59 stores, a banquet hall and pool hall. A food court on the second floor will include Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants. While the grocery store will have mostly Asian influences, some of the foods will come from West Indian and Latin American countries.

"The world is changing with all the different ethnic groups," Choi said. "Most Super Fresh and Safeway stores aren't going to cater to this group."

In Maryland, the Asian population grew 68.6 percent from 157,646 people in 1992 to 265,776 people in 2002, the latest figures available.

Seoul Plaza expects to draw customers from Howard and Baltimore counties, where the growth has been particularly swift.

Asian-run convenience stores and churches have existed in the Baltimore area for years. The larger grocery stores and international malls show that these communities are establishing roots and reaching a critical mass, experts said. It's a trend happening nationwide as the immigrant population has boomed in the past decade.

"I think this trend may indicate a maturing in the Asian immigrant population," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy in the sociology department at the Johns Hopkins University. "As people become part of American society and move up in the world they often move out to the suburbs. These grocery stores then satisfy a demand for Korean food among immigrants who move out of the central city and don't want to go back to the old grocery store."

Two other mega-stores aimed at Asian immigrants have opened in the Baltimore area in the past five years. Han Ah Reum opened in Catonsville in the summer of 2001, and Lotte Plaza started doing business in Howard County in 1999.

"There are two primary drivers behind the growth in these groceries," said Todd Hultquist, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute. "There is a growing international population, particularly the Southeast Asian and Hispanic communities. The other driver is the increasing sophistication of the American palate. They're getting exposed to a lot more tastes and types of foods."

The first Seoul Plaza

The Chois opened their first Seoul Plaza in 1999 in Annandale, Va., a community known as "Koreatown" for its large immigrant population. They also own plazas in Gaithersburg and Germantown and in Chantilly, Va.

One day this week, the parking lot at the Seoul Plaza in Annandale was packed with cars. Unlike the large Security mall, this one is a humble-looking strip shopping center. Five years ago, when they bought the plaza, the Chois said that many of the spots were vacant. Now, there are two small grocery stores, a Korean bank and restaurants.

You Rimlee, 22, was working behind the counter at a wireless phone store. She moved to Annandale 12 years ago and with her flared jeans and hair dyed a rich auburn, she is every bit American. She said many of her customers are Korean immigrants who aren't fluent in English.

"They don't know English that well, so they come in here because I can help them understand," she said. " I help them with billing questions and questions about their cell phones."

Seok Chung, 32, a student at Georgetown University, came to the plaza in Annandale to get his hair cut. He moved to Virginia from Seoul, South Korea, last summer and said the plaza reminds him of home.

"I feel comfortable here," he said.

The plaza at Security Square Mall will be the largest the Choi family has opened. The grocery store and five stores will open tomorrow, while the rest of the tenants will move in over the next few months.

"We want customers to be able to come to this mall and take care of everything," Choi said. "They can come and eat lunch and then do their grocery shopping for the week."

It will also give Koreans a chance to start businesses, Choi said. He predicted that the plaza will create 200 jobs and will serve as a community and gathering spot for Asians. There are plans for a YMCA branch and doctor's offices.

Making preparations

At the grocery this week, workers moved swiftly, stacking apples in neat rows in the produce department and making signs with magic markers. They were awaiting shipments of Asian fruits, such as tamarinds, which have to be ordered a month ahead.

The shelves were stacked with food not found in your typical grocery store such as 100 varieties of Asian tea, jars of pickled mango, pineapple gel and rows of noodles.

In the mall area, a woman stopped by to ask Choi about leasing space for a Korean traditional dress store, while a man carried boxes into his Korean nutrition store.

Upstairs near the food court, Jenny Jin sat at a table of a coffee shop, Oh My Cafe, that she will soon open at the plaza. A former secretary, she decided to open a business after her father died last year.

"It's better than being an office girl," she said. "I want to be independent."

Planned merchants

Seoul Plaza will open this weekend in the former J.C. Penney store at Security Square Mall. Among the storefronts planned are:

Hair salon

Dentist's office

Restaurants

Coffee shop

Traditional Korean dress shop

Pool hall

Korean nutrition store

Grocery store

Shoe store

Clothing store

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