AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Stacey Kwon should have known she'd go into the family business.
In first grade, she asked her dad for chocolate to bring into class for Valentine's Day, but he forgot. She vividly remembers sitting at her desk, sadly looking at the cards she had, when all of a sudden he showed up, carrying giant Hmart bags stuffed with treats. The class went wild -- and she remembers being so happy.
"That was probably my first experience sharing culture and food," Kwon said. "And, literally, that's what I feel every time we open up a store. And I should have known then that this was my passion."
Kwon and her family are now bringing that enthusiasm to northwest Austin with the opening of their newest Hmart store -- with a twist. Dallas and Houston are already home to the Asian grocery chain, but Austin is the first location in the country to also have a food hall called Market Eatery attached.
"Austin's perfect" for the new concept, Kwon said. "What's a better place to do this whole culture plus entertainment plus food plus drink?"
Within the grocery store at 11301 Lakeline Blvd. #150, just off of US 183, people can buy frozen and packaged food, as well as prepared dishes, seafood, meat and fresh produce.
Lines on Thursday stretched around the building during its grand opening, and Friday was still quite busy, with people perusing the aisles with carts or baskets, putting frozen fish balls into bags or picking out ice creams from Japan, Korea or America. Dotted around the store were people giving away samples of dumplings, cut fruit and even different flavors of Pocky treats.
Just on the other side of the hubbub is Market Eatery, which not only has food, but a no-tip bar and a stage for live entertainment. When picking which places to include in the hall, Kwon and her family studied what was already available in Austin, and emphasized not "dumbing down" flavors.
"It seems every year people's palates are getting more and more developed," Kwon said. "People are really into tasting food that isn't more simplified.
Food and drink options in Market Eatery:
- Katsu: Cutlets, omelets and pasta
- Lai Lai: Chinese food
- Let Them Talk: a no-tip bar with 99 cent beers
- MIX: Korean snack food
- Momo Sushi: Japanese sushi
- Snow Monster: Shaved ice, boba tea and waffles
- Sogongdong Tofu House: Korean tofu soup and comfort food (Kwon says the tofu soup is very popular, as is the hot stone bibimbap)
- Sunday BBQ: Korean Barbecue (Kwon recommends the kalbi short ribs)
- Sunday Bird: Korean Fried Chicken
- Tous Les Jours: Korean bakery
Attaching the food hall to the store allows the vendors there access to fresh ingredients right next door, and Kwon says it also helps reduce prices for the consumer.
While Kwon is the creator of Market Eatery -- "It's my firstborn," she joked -- the entire enterprise is truly a family endeavor. With each new store, including the one in Austin that opened Thursday, she and her dad join employees in preparing it for customers, staying up into the wee hours of the morning opening boxes and stocking shelves.
Growing up, Kwon watched as her father, Il Yeon Kwon, took the Hmart from a small store in Queens, New York, in 1982 to a nationwide chain of more than 50 stores. Her mother is head of design at the company, and hand-made or hand-selected each decoration within the food hall. "When you make something yourself, you put a hell of a lot more love into it," Kwon said.
Kwon says she hopes the space will allow people to chill, work, enjoy live entertainment -- and maybe do some grocery shopping, too.
"I don't think it's just about Asian customers," Kwon said. "A place like Market Eatery is about people getting together with friends, having food, enjoying culture."
Hmart plans to open 15 more stores in 2018, two of which will be added to the two in Dallas and three Houston. About half will also have a Market Eatery attached, including the one in Dallas.