Case Studies

Bowen Kou – Fresh International Market

An American dream fulfilled through pan-Asian authentic flavors

Bowen Kou knows what it means to have nothing except unlimited potential and a burning desire to succeed. He came to the U.S. from China at age 19 and, in 2009, began his undergraduate studies in supply chain management at Michigan State University.

He noticed a lot of students struggling to purchase new textbooks, which were expensive and beyond many people’s budgets. So, he took a chance and started a business selling used textbooks to fellow students.

Bowen Kou | Founder and CEO | Fresh International Market

“While the business did well, I was perhaps more passionate about helping others, and this was a wonderful way to assist fellow students,” he says.

He kept his eyes open for other opportunities—and one came along in 2011. The owner of a small Asian grocery store wanted to sell his business and retire. Kou recognized the potential, so he promptly sold his bookstore and purchased the 2,000-square-foot “Oriental Mart” that had only three employees.

That location in East Lansing, Michigan, became the first Fresh International Market, which he founded. The grocery chain now has nine locations across seven states with more than 500 employees.

“My idea for Fresh International Market was to create a company dedicated to bringing the vibrant lifestyles and authentic international flavors to communities across the United States,” Kou says. “Over a decade later, my team and I are still driven and passionate about providing our diverse clientele with the best international culinary experiences and freshest foods.”

A passport full of sauces instead of stamps

To provide this delectable experience, Kou has built partnerships between FIM and various restaurants, bakeries and retailers over the past few years. The grocery chain sources food from more than 28 countries. It carries several varieties of rice from Japan, myriad noodles from Singapore and even flour from India.

“Our mission is simple and unchanged since I opened the first store: Be the go-to destination in every town for global flavors,” he says.

Various Asian-inspired pastries are created fresh in the on-site bakeries that open at 7 each morning. As a nod to his Chinese heritage, he’s focused on using authentic recipes at each of the FIM locations. In fact, on Feb. 16, 2022, FIM published an article on its website about how to enjoy hotpot—one of the most iconic Chinese dishes, according to Kou—at home.

Bowen Kou | Founder and CEO | Fresh International Market

He wants to introduce everyone to the Asian food culture, not just through the stores but the company’s website, which includes several articles and blog posts breaking down the essentials and history of international food.

“In store, we prepare food the same way as our ancestors did, which is both healthy and delicious,” he says. “Fresh International Market isn’t just a grocery store but a trip and an experience.”

Kou and his team are committed to providing fresh, healthy foods, both for the sake of consumers and to reach more shoppers and a broader clientele. That’s why the company proudly carries U.S. Department of Agriculture organic products, he says.

To further his efforts to introduce more people to global foods, recipes and nutrition, he travels to various cities to scout out the perfect areas for new FIM locations. He also works with architects and designers to give the stores a unique look.

“I want everyone who enjoys delicious, healthy food to feel welcome at every single FIM location—and for them to have a fun opportunity to broaden their palettes,” Kou says.

An appetite for business  

However, Kou understands that an Asian-based international grocery store can be overwhelming to those who are used to Americanized supermarkets.

To properly train his team members, he keeps a closer eye on every new location once it opens. He works there every day to ensure the service and food are up to his standards.

“We had some difficulties with COVID recruiting talent, but we’re moving forward,” says Kou, who opened a new store in Raleigh, North Carolina, in August 2023. In addition to being FIM’s first location in the state, the store will also house a Paris Baguette bakery.

Bowen Kou | Founder and CEO | Fresh International Market

His business plan for the future of FIM is an ambitious one, but Kou is no stranger to surmounting challenges and helping businesses succeed. Yet, his goal since starting the bookstore as an undergraduate student was to help the community even while reaching for his success.

“I’m still passionate about that and why I’ve kept a focus on volunteer and community-based efforts with Fresh International Market,” he says.

In 2021, when the pandemic hit many families and restaurants hard, he was able to donate around $40,000 to support surrounding communities. Since opening FIM’s first location in 2012, he’s put aside money during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, to give to charity.

“I love what I do with Fresh International Market, sharing a piece of my home and childhood with others while giving people a chance to experience something completely new,” Kou says. “It’s about bringing joy and new experiences to others. Food, after all, is what brings us all together.”

View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. III 2023 Edition here.



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