Having lived in L.A. since high school, Nino Jefferson Lim speaks fluent English and feels quite at home here. But his roots are never far away. "My day is not complete without a dish of rice," said the USC graduate.
Figuring that other Filipinos feel as he does, Lim is about to kick off a bold experiment a 50,000-square-foot retail center with the first full-service supermarket geared specifically to the Filipino community.
"We're not just a supermarket," said Lim, president of Island Pacific Supermarket, which will open in March in Panorama City. "We're doing this because we want to create a center to preserve the Filipino heritage."
Filipinos outnumber all other Asian minorities in L.A., except Chinese Americans. But unlike those other ethnic groups, the Filipino community never has had a commercial center. An earlier attempt near downtown L.A. failed back in the '80s.
But things may be changing.
"Filipinos have made an effort to recapture elements of the culture," said Brad Bagasao, vice president of Global Knowledge Services, a consulting firm, who is Filipino-American.
"I think the population growth combined with (an emerging realization) that we need to support our own businesses can sustain a large enterprise," he said.
At first, Lim had considered leasing just half the 50,000-square-foot space, which used to be a Latino supermarket and before that a Ralphs grocery. But he settled on renovating the property to accommodate a 26,000-square-foot store and a cluster of shops, with the hope of attracting shoppers, not just from the local Panorama City area but from all over the San Fernando Valley.
"It's different when you make a center," said Lim. "It becomes a place to go."
The Kababayan Center (the name means "countryman" in Tagalog) is an indoor shopping mall with marble floors, ceilings painted to look like sky, and a statue of King Lapu Lapu, the Filipino ruler believed to have killed Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer who opened the country to Spanish rule.
Its centerpiece, the 27,000-square-foot Island Pacific Supermarket, will be anchored by Goldilocks Bake Shop and Restaurant and video and music retailer Karioke Melody. Stalls along the entranceway to the supermarket will house more Filipino businesses, including a beauty shop, cellular phone center and gift shop.
The venture is the latest in a string of businesses Lim's family has operated in the United States since 1984. The parent company, Universal Food Corp., has supplied groceries, fish and meats to other Asian retailers. Believing the Filipino-American community has grown large enough to support such a chain, Lim convinced his father to move into the supermarket business after he graduated from USC with a degree in accounting.
The company intends to offer the same level of service that mom-and-pop stores are known for. Staff members will cut meat and fish to customer specifications and even fry it up free of charge. And because it can buy goods directly from its parent company, Lim said retail prices are likely to be cheaper than those at Asian chains, like 99 Ranch or Seafood City. "We supply the supermarket, so our costs will be much lower," Lim said. "It's really a good indication for our success."
Unlike other minorities, Filipinos have not created a readily identifiable target market. Fluent in English and with a cultural heritage that is largely Hispanic, they have dispersed throughout L.A. Island Pacific chose Panorama City for the store because a portion of the region's Filipino population is believed to be concentrated in an area encompassing Sun Valley, Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Panorama City. But the company must draw on a wider radius if it's to build the type of traffic a center of that size requires.
That may prove difficult. For one thing, immigration policies have tightened, and there is not the same influx of new Filipino immigrants to L.A. as there is with some other ethnic groups, Lim said. And unlike many other groups, there is little that bonds Filipinos together.
"It's basically a Hispanic culture," said Bagasao. "Villages are set up on the same model as Mexico, where you have the church in the center of town."
The similarities to Latin cultures are not lost on Lim and he hopes to attract Latinos to the mall. Filipino foods are already familiar to Latinos.
"They have menudo (a form of tripe), we have menudo," said Harold Limcay, marketing director for Island Pacific. "They have tilapia, (a type of fish), we have tilapia. We have rice, they have rice."
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