Grand Asia Market is a window to Asia and a cultural immersion for shoppers.
Step inside at 4400 Potters Road in Stallings and you realize this isn't your typical grocery store. Red and gold lanterns and parasols stream from the ceiling. A gift shop offers Asian specialties, including tea sets, dishes, cookware and cosmetics, toiletries, soaps and candy. Large tanks with live fish, lobsters and crabs mesmerize children.
Fresh noodles and a variety of fresh tofu take up an entire case. Different varieties of ramen noodles take up one side of a row. The store even offers aged ostrich eggs.
The 27,000-square-foot market, which opened in December, includes a quick-serve Asian restaurant, bakery and a seafood selection, including live fish and other choices, many imported from Asia or Europe.
"I come here every week because of the food," said Annie Yu, a realtor from Harrisburg. "I especially like the fast food - you can't find that around here - and I love the bakery items. I can eat lunch here and shop at the same time."
"We offer Asian cuisine and products and try to help educate Americans about Asian culture, including different kinds of food and cooking," said Alice Chang, the store's vice president and manager.
Chang is eager to share her passion for Asian culture with customers and answer questions.
Americans are more interested in healthy eating, said Chang, and they are moving away from the "bigger is better" mentality and want to explore new vegetables and fruits.
Chang said she talks to people about how to add new vegetables in stir-fry or soups.
"I'm starting a meet-up group for people interested in exploring Asian foods," said Chang. "We'll try new foods and learn how to cook with different fruits, vegetables and meats."
Asians typically eat fish whole, leaving the bones in for flavor, said Chang. They use chopsticks, which makes it easier to clear away bones.
The market offers customers the choice of having their fish cleaned and filleted in several different ways. A butcher shop offers fresh meat - mainly pork, said Chang, because pork is used frequently in dumplings and meatballs.
"The main part of our meal is carbohydrates, so there are many kinds of rice, bread and noodles," she said. "Asians don't eat a lot of raw vegetables, we like to cook them. Tofu is a staple in our diet. Chinese use tofu to get their dairy requirements, and you can get it silken, medium, firm and extra firm, or even seasoned, since tofu by itself has no flavor."
The bakery makes traditional dumplings, sweet breads and Asian-French fusion bread, including black sesame loaves.
The fast-food restaurant is a big attraction.
"We offer a wide variety of noodles, stir-fry and a specialty tofu soup, available on weekends," said Chang. "It's much more convenient to buy things like roast duck from us than to try to make it at home."
Chang speaks Mandarin but describes herself as "more American than Chinese." She grew up in the Raleigh area with her Taiwanese mother, who left an office job in 1997 to open an Asian grocery that she later expanded. The store catered to a diverse customer base and grew to serve customers from other cities.
In 2008, founder Chang began looking into the Charlotte market for expansion. When she opened the store two years later in Stallings, her daughter, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, left her New York City finance job to run it.
"I always thought that I'd love to have a business of my own, and I was getting tired of my office job," said Chang. "From growing up in a grocery store, I'm such a foodie. I thought, what better way to learn than from my mother?"
Her customer base, said Chang, is broad. Several different Asian cultures are represented in the store's variety: Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Filipino.