“You can pull a less-skilled worker in and have them adapt to our system much easier,” said Ryan Hillis, a Meltwich vice president. “It certainly widens the scope of who you can have behind that grill.”
With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to flow directly to the restaurant and other technological advances, Meltwich needs only two to three workers on a shift, rather than three or four, Mr. Hillis said.
Such changes, multiplied across thousands of businesses in dozens of industries, could significantly change workers’ prospects. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said technologies developed for one purpose tend to spread to similar tasks, which could make it hard for workers harmed by automation to shift to another occupation or industry.
“If a whole sector of labor is hit, then where do those workers go?” Professor Warman said. Women, and to a lesser degree people of color, are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.
The grocery business has long been a source of steady, often unionized jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the sector. Self-checkout lanes have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. Kroger in April opened a 375,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering groceries by drone.
Other companies in the industry are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, a grocery chain based in New England, said that technology allowed the company to better serve customers — and that it was a competitive necessity.
“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce their costs and offer improved service and value for customers,” she said. “Stop & Shop needs to do the same.”
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At the H Mart on Broadway at 110th Street in Manhattan, the lights are bright on the singo pears, round as apples and kept snug in white mesh, so their skin won’t bruise. Here are radishes in hot pink and winter white, gnarled ginseng grown in Wisconsin, broad perilla leaves with notched edges, and almost every kind of Asian green: yu choy, bok choy, ong choy, hon choy, aa choy, wawa choy, gai lan, sook got.
The theme is abundance — chiles from fat little thumbs to witchy fingers, bulk bins of fish balls, live lobsters brooding in blue tanks, a library of tofu. Cuckoo rice cookers gleam from the shelves like a showroom of Aston Martins. Customers fill baskets with wands of lemongrass, dried silvery anchovies, shrimp chips and Wagyu beef sliced into delicate petals.
For decades in America, this kind of shopping was a pilgrimage. Asian-Americans couldn’t just pop into the local Kroger or Piggly Wiggly for a bottle of fish sauce. To make the foods of their heritage, they often had to seek out the lone Asian grocery in town, which was salvation — even if cramped and dingy, with scuffed linoleum underfoot and bags of rice slumped in a corner.
1.5 percent of the American population was of Asian descent.
beaten to death in Detroit by two white autoworkers who were reportedly angered by the success of the Japanese car industry. Asian-Americans, a disparate group of many origins that had historically not been recognized as a political force, came together to condemn the killing and speak in a collective voice.
Today, as they again confront hate-fueled violence, Asian-Americans are the nation’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, numbering more than 22 million, nearly 7 percent of the total population. And there are 102 H Marts across the land, with vast refrigerated cases devoted to kimchi and banchan, the side dishes essential to any Korean meal. In 2020, the company reported $1.5 billion in sales. Later this year, it’s set to open its largest outpost yet, in a space in Orlando, Fla., that is nearly the size of four football fields.
And H Mart has competition: Other grocery chains that specialize in ingredients from Asia include Patel Brothers (Patel Bros, to fans), founded in Chicago; and, headquartered in California, Mitsuwa Marketplace and 99 Ranch Market — or Ranch 99, as Chinese speakers sometimes call it. They’re part of a so-called ethnic or international supermarket sector estimated to be worth $46.1 billion, a small but growing percentage of the more than $653 billion American grocery industry.
Japanese Breakfast, in her new memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” published last month. The book begins with her standing in front of the banchan refrigerators, mourning the death of her Korean-born mother. “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves.”
As the 20th-century philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?”
For an immigrant, cooking can be a way to anchor yourself in a world suddenly askew. There is no end to the lengths some might go to taste once more that birthday spoonful of Korean miyeok guk, a soup dense with seaweed, slippery on the tongue, or the faintly bitter undertow of beef bile in Laotian laap diip (raw beef salad).
When Vilailuck Teigen — the co-author, with Garrett Snyder, of “The Pepper Thai Cookbook,” out in April — was a young mother in western Utah in the 1980s, she ordered 50-pound bags of rice by mail and drove 150 miles to Salt Lake City to buy chiles. She had no mortar and pestle, so she crushed spices with the bottom of a fish-sauce bottle.
Snackboxe Bistro in Atlanta, was a child in a small town in east-central Alabama, where her family settled after fleeing Laos as refugees. They fermented their own fish sauce, and her father made a weekly trek to Atlanta to pick up lemongrass and galangal at the international farmers’ market.
The essayist Jay Caspian Kang has described Americans of Asian descent as “the loneliest Americans.” Even after the government eased restrictions on immigration from Asia in 1965, being an Asian-American outside major cities often meant living in isolation — the only Asian family in town, the only Asian child at school. A grocery store could be a lifeline.
When the writer Jenny Han, 40, was growing up in Richmond, Va., in the ’90s, her family shopped at the hole-in-the-wall Oriental Market, run by a woman at their church. It was the one place where they could load up on toasted sesame oil and rent VHS tapes of Korean dramas, waiting to pounce when someone returned a missing episode.
A few states away, the future YouTube cooking star Emily Kim — better known as Maangchi — was newly arrived in Columbia, Mo., with a stash of meju, bricks of dried soybean paste, hidden at the bottom of her bag. She was worried that in her new American home she wouldn’t be able to find such essentials.
Then she stumbled on a tiny shop, also called Oriental Market. One day the Korean woman at the counter invited her to stay for a bowl of soup her husband had just made.
“She was my friend,” Maangchi recalled.
Kim’s Convenience” might say, a sneak attack. Once Brian Kwon entered the office, he never left. “My father called it his ‘golden plan,’ after the fact,” he said ruefully. He is now a co-president, alongside his mother and his sister, Stacey, 33. (His father is the chief executive.)
For many non-Asian customers, H Mart is itself a sneak attack. On their first visit, they’re not actually looking for Asian ingredients; customer data shows that they’re drawn instead to the variety and freshness of more familiar produce, seafood and meat. Only later do they start examining bags of Jolly Pong, a sweet puffed-wheat snack, and red-foil-capped bottles of Yakult — a fermented milk drink that sold out after it appeared in Ms. Han’s best-selling novel-turned-movie “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
To be welcoming to non-Koreans, H Mart puts up signs in English. At the same time, the younger Mr. Kwon said, “We don’t want to be the gentrified store.” So while some non-Asians recoil from the tanks of lobsters, the Kwons are committed to offering live seafood.
Sunday Family Hospitality Group, in San Francisco, remembers the H Mart of his youth in New Jersey as “just the Korean store” — a sanctuary for his parents, recent immigrants still not at ease in English. Everyone spoke Korean, and all that banchan was a relief: His mother would pack them in her cart for dinner, then pretend she’d made them herself.
Later, as a teenager, he started seeing his Chinese- and Filipino-American friends there, too, and then his non-Asian friends. Spurred by postings on social media, young patrons would line up to buy the latest snack sensation — “the snack aisle is notorious,” Mr. Hong said — like Haitai honey butter chips and Xiao Mei boba ice cream bars. (The current craze: Orion chocolate-churro-flavored snacks that look like baby turtles.)
In “Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown,” a new cookbook by the chef Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho, Mr. Jew, 41, recalls Sunday mornings in San Francisco with his ying ying (paternal grandmother in Cantonese), taking three bus transfers to traverse the city, on a mission for fresh chicken — sometimes slaughtered on the spot — and ingredients like pea shoots and lotus leaves.
He still prefers “that Old World kind of shopping,” he said, from independent vendors, each with his own specialties and occasional grouchiness and eccentricities. But he knows that the proliferation of supermarkets like H Mart and 99 Ranch makes it easier for newcomers to Asian food to recreate his recipes.
“Access to those ingredients leads to a deeper understanding of the cuisine,” he said. “And that in turn can become a deeper understanding of a community and a culture.”
Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., and Atlanta, feels that something is lost when you buy paneer and grass-fed ghee at a Whole Foods Market. You miss the cultural immersion, he says, “getting a dunk and having horizons broadened.”
“An Indian grocery is not just a convenience — it’s a temple,” he said. “You’re feeding the soul. Come in and pick up on the energy.”
In the TV special “Luda Can’t Cook,” which premiered in February, Mr. Irani takes the rapper Ludacris to Cherians, an Indian supermarket in Atlanta. Once Mr. Irani had to scrounge for spices like cumin and turmeric at health food stores; now, surrounded by burlap sacks stuffed with cardamom pods and dried green mango, he tells Ludacris, “This is my house.”
Min Jin Lee, 52, remembers how important H Mart was to people working in Manhattan’s Koreatown in the ’80s, when it was still called Han Ah Reum and “tiny, with almost no place to negotiate yourself through the aisles,” she said. (It has since moved across West 32nd Street to a larger space.) Her parents ran a jewelry wholesale business around the corner, and relied on the store for a cheap but substantial dosirak (lunch box) that came with cups of soup and rice.
She sees the modern incarnation of the store as a boon for second- and third-generation Korean Americans, including thousands of Korean-born adoptees raised by white American parents, who “want to find some sort of connection to the food of their families,” she said. “There aren’t gatekeepers to say who’s in or who’s out.”
BTS — anti-Asian sentiment is growing. With visibility comes risk.
For Ms. Lee, this makes H Mart a comfort. “I like going there because I feel good there,” she said. “In the context of hatred against my community, to see part of my culture being valued — it’s exceptional.”
Marilyn Reece, the lead bakery clerk at a Kroger in Batesville, Miss., started noticing more customers walking around the store without masks this month after the state mandate to wear face coverings was repealed. Kroger still requires them, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
When Ms. Reece, a 56-year-old breast-cancer survivor, sees those shoppers, she prays. “Please, please, don’t let me have to wait on them, because in my heart, I don’t want to ignore them, I don’t want to refuse them,” she said. “But then I’m thinking I don’t want to get sick and die, either. It’s not that people are bad, but you don’t know who they’ve come into contact with.”
Ms. Reece’s heightened anxiety is shared by retail and fast-food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments have removed mask mandates before a majority of people have been vaccinated and while troubling new variants of the coronavirus are appearing. It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic, when businesses said customers must wear masks but there was no legal requirement and numerous shoppers simply refused. Many workers say that their stores do not enforce the requirement, and that if they do approach customers, they risk verbal or physical altercations.
“It’s given a great false sense of security, and it’s no different now than it was a year ago,” said Ms. Reece, who is not yet able to receive a vaccine because of allergies. “The only difference we have now is people are getting vaccinated but enough people haven’t gotten vaccinated that they should have lifted the mandate.”
translated into extra pay on top of their low wages. Grocery employees were not initially given priority for vaccinations in most states, even as health experts cautioned the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)
The issue has gained serious prominence: On Monday, President Biden called on governors and mayors to maintain or reinstate orders to wear masks as the nation grapples with a potential rise in virus cases.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 grocery workers, said this month that at least 34,700 grocery workers around the country had been infected with or exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died from the virus. The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., has only rattled workers further and added to concerns about their own safety.
Diane Cambre, a 50-year-old floor supervisor at a Kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said she had spent much of the past year worrying about bringing the virus home to her 9-year-old son and dreading interactions with customers who were flippant about the possibility of getting sick. She wears a double mask in the store even though it irritates her skin, already itchy from psoriasis, and changes her clothes as soon as she gets home.
end the statewide mask mandate the next week, Ms. Cambre said, customers immediately “started coming in not wearing a mask and stuff, and it’s been pretty hard getting anybody to wear one.” Management is supposed to offer masks to people who aren’t wearing them, but if they don’t put them on, nothing else is done, she said.
tantrums from cart-pushing adults.
“Some of our customers are drama-prone, so they’ll start yelling, ‘I’m not wearing that mask,’ and you can tell they’re very rude in their voice and very harsh,” Ms. Cambre, a U.F.C.W. member, said. Overseeing the self-checkout aisles has been especially challenging, she said, because customers who need help will demand that she come over, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance.
At times when she has tried to explain the need for distancing, “they say, ‘OK, and that’s just a government thing,’” she said. “It really takes a toll on you mentally.”
A Kroger representative said that the chain would “continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the Covid-19 vaccine,” and that it was offering $100 one-time payments to workers who received the vaccine.
The differing state and business mandates have some workers worried about more confrontations. The retail industry was already trying to address the issue last fall, when a major trade group helped put together training to help workers manage and de-escalate conflicts with customers who resisted masks, social distancing and store capacity limits. Refusing service to people without masks, or asking them to leave, has led to incidents in the past year like a cashier’s being punched in the face, a Target employee’s breaking his arm and the fatal shooting of a Family Dollar security guard.
This month in League City, Texas, near Houston, a 53-year-old man who refused to wear a required mask in a Jack in the Box confronted employees and then stabbed a store manager three times, according to a report in The Houston Chronicle. On March 14, a San Antonio ramen shop was vandalized with racist graffiti after its owner criticized Mr. Abbott on television for lifting the Texas mask mandate.
Office Depot in Texas City after she refused to wear a mask or leave the store, just days after an arrest warrant was issued for her in Galveston, Texas, for behaving similarly in a Bank of America location.
MaryAnn Kaylor, the owner of two antique stores in Dallas, including Lula B’s Design District, said the mask mandate repeal mattered a lot for stores and people’s behavior.
“He should have focused more on getting people vaccinated instead of trying to open everything up,” she said of Governor Abbott, noting that Texas has one of the country’s slowest vaccination rates.
“You still have cases every day in Texas, and you have people dying still from Covid,” she said. “This complete lifting of mandates is stupid. It shouldn’t have been based on politics — it should have been based on science.”
Some Texans have started to seek out mask-friendly establishments. Ms. Kaylor said that lists of Dallas businesses that require masks had been circulating on Facebook, and that people were consulting them to figure out where to buy groceries and do other shopping.
Emily Francois, a sales associate at a Walmart in Port Arthur, Texas, said that customers had been ignoring signs to wear masks and that Walmart had not been enforcing the policy. So Ms. Francois stands six feet away from shoppers who don’t wear masks, even though that upsets some of them. “My life is more important,” she said.
“I see customers coming in without a mask and they’re coughing, sneezing, they’re not covering their mouths,” said Ms. Francois, who has worked at Walmart for 14 years and is a member of United for Respect, an advocacy group. “Customers coming in the store without masks make us feel like we aren’t worthy, we aren’t safe.”
Phillip Keene, a spokesman for Walmart, said that “our policy of requiring associates and customers to wear masks in our stores has helped protect them during the pandemic, and we’re not lifting those measures at this time.”
Even before the pandemic, Ms. Reece, the Kroger clerk in Mississippi, was wearing a mask to protect herself from the flu because of her cancer diagnosis, she said.
She said 99 percent of customers in her small store had worn masks during the pandemic. “When they had to put it on, they did put it on,” she said. “It’s like giving a child a piece of candy — that child is going to eat that candy unless you take it from them.”
She is concerned about the potential harm from new variants, particularly from those who don’t cover their mouths. “You just have to pray and pray you don’t get within six feet of them, or 10 feet for that matter,” said Ms. Reece, who is also a U.F.C.W. member and has worked for Kroger for more than 30 years. “I know people want it to be back to normal, but you can’t just will it to be back to normal.”