What The 'H' In H Mart Actually Stands For

Some people may think of H Mart as a specialty store, but that's not really true. After all, it stocks food representing a myriad of cuisines from across an entire continent and is the biggest Asian supermarket chain in the U.S. It offers not just Asian groceries, but Western ones, too, as well as everyday and upscale products. Its stores also feature large food halls. While this brand had humble beginnings, it's far from niche, presently. In fact, it currently operates nearly 100 stores across the U.S. and, per Hanna One, has expanded overseas to Canada and the United Kingdom.

Specific groceries found at H Mart include aa choy, boba ice cream bars, fish balls, honey butter crisps, Jolly pong, lemongrass, ong choy, perilla, Wagyu beef, Yakult, and more (via NY Times). As described in Michelle Zauner's personal history article, "Crying in H Mart," written for the New Yorker, there's no single type of person that shops at H Mart. Proving this, Zauner notes the people she observes while on one of her trips there: a three-generation trio of Korean grandma, mom, and daughter, a group of Chinese students studying abroad, a white family enjoying their venture into unfamiliar culinary territory, a young couple sharing cultural memories, and an elderly man. 

With such a wide array of customers, H Mart is clearly enjoying success. But how did the company achieve this? Well, there's a clue hidden in its name.

An arm full of groceries

The history of H Mart stretches back to the 1980s. Back then, the store was called "Han Ah Reum," which is a Korean phrase translating to "one arm full of groceries," per Hanna One. As reported by the NY Times, the founder of H Mart was a businessman who departed South Korea about a decade earlier. His name was Il Yeon Kwon, and his background helps explain why the original store was known by a Korean moniker.

Kwon's heritage also lends insight into why the small corner store was an ideal place to find items that consumers could use to make authentic Korean meals. The shop went on to sell BBQ grills, as well (via Hanna One), making at-home Korean BBQ easy. Han Ah Reum was an apt name for the store, given the number of Korean products one could buy there. In fact, that's what the "H" in H Mart stands for: Han Ah Reum.

This brand of specific appeal to Korean-Americans and broad appeal to anybody interested in Asian cuisines allowed Han Ah Reum to transform into "H Mart" and grow. Hanna One notes that, in the early 2000s, H Mart expanded abroad and opened up its first "Super H Mart." Initially, most of its U.S. branches were on the East Coast, but in the early 2010s, it extended its reach to the West Coast. 

In the 2020s, H Mart remains a favored spot for those looking to purchase an arm full of groceries, Korean or otherwise.