Paradise for big shoppers

THREE years ago, Gregory and Patrick Ng grappled with a few doubts. The Hong Kong-born businessmen wanted to introduce warehouse shopping to Hong Kong.

They enjoyed it in California, where they had lived and raised families.

But would it work in Hong Kong where the average size flat (about 500 square feet) has no storage space for a small barrel of detergent, two dozen rolls of fax paper, a two-litre size bottle of ketchup or enough muffin mix to keep a small restaurant in blueberry muffins for three mornings.

Warehouse shopping offers foods and household goods in large quantities. The consumer forfeits personal attention, frills, music, artistic displays and foods packaged in small quantities. In return, you save.

This style of shopping benefits families, small offices, clubs and schools more than singles or couples.

Hurdles aside, the Ngs agreed that the Cantonese love a bargain. And if shoppers hooked on quality and saving money, customer loyalty would grow.

Even in an economic downturn, shoppers would remain with a store and brands they trusted.

That was 21/2 years ago, when the Ngs launched the first GrandMart Warehouse Club in Sha Tin. 'We broke even in one year,' said Gregory.

Tomorrow the Ngs will open their eighth GrandMart in Quarry Bay (Manly Plaza, 993 King's Road).

That makes two new stores in June.

At a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for their Kwun Tong store, the brothers kicked off a month-long 'great American food' promotion, in all stores that includes cooking demonstrations and food sampling.

The event introduces some low-fat desserts and snacks, fresh apples and cherries from the Pacific Northwest, citrus products from growers in Florida and California, frozen meat from Colorado and Texas, canned produce and frozen seafood from both coasts.

Seventy-five per cent of their products come from the US. Staples, such as rice or mushrooms, come from Asia.

Members pay an annual fee of $150 and save 30 to 40 per cent, says Gregory. GrandMart has 50,000 members and home delivery is available. Non-members are invited to shop, but members save by five per cent.

So far, the Ngs are pleased with the growth of their venture. Slowly, customers are heeding the signs around the stores that encourage shoppers to bring their own bags or use the free cardboard boxes.

One wrinkle continues to flaw their smooth sailing.

'It's hard to get Chinese to complain,' referring to the customer service hotline. 'Maybe they're too modest. Or, if they don't like something, they tell everyone but us.' For more information and shop locations, phone GrandMart Warehouse Club at 2772-4477, or fax 2727-4477. A HOLIDAY in Bulgaria months ago opened my eyes to wine prices and the lethal effect of plum brandy.

For any wine-lover looking for a bargain, check out their cabernet, mavrud, melnik or merlot.

During my visit, friends, former residents of Hong Kong on a three-year stint in Sofia, hosted a wine-tasting for 20. It was, they assured me, one of the few amusements the city offered.

They hired a wine master, who arrived with a translator and 18 cases. Four hours later, the men staggered home with red faces and a fistful of orders.

The hosts, then in stockinged feet, regaled the pleasures of Bulgaria. Where else can you host a party for 20 that costs no more than $1,500, including cheese and nibbles? After sampling everything, my favourite turned out to be a rough, semi-dry melnik. The cost of a bottle, we estimated, was around $10. I returned with a few bottles, blew my savings on religious icons and nearly wept when the bottle of plum brandy tumbled out at Kai Tak.

The melnik memory was revived recently when I spotted an advertisement for Bulgarian wine. I phoned and at the end of the line was Yuval 'Jovi' Golds. Just for fun and little profit, explained the Israeli-born leather trader, he is bringing Bulgarian to Hong Kong.

He sells it by the case. But for those who want to sip before they buy, many of the bars or restaurants around Lamma sell it.

Otherwise, Jovi sells a case (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, melnik, merlot) for $550 (delivery to HK or Kowloon included). If you pick it up on Lamma, the price drops to $480.

For more information: call or fax Jovi at 2982-1486. MARK your calendars: the Mandarin matches Thai silk fashions by designer Nagara with regional foods, from June 26 to July 8. The hotel hosts a food and fashion promotion with its sister hotel, The Oriental in Bangkok, in the Clipper Lounge and Coffee shop. Nagara Sambandaraksa will be in residence on June 28 and June 30.

Southern Australia's best wine and food are headed to Omni the Hong Kong Hotel, from tomorrow to July 9.

Chef Simon Mathews from the Clare Valley will preside over the Tai Pan Grill and present signature dishes, including fettucine with stir-fried kangaroo in chilli plum sauce, char-grilled crocodile with riesling and pan-fried green lobster tail with mango, chilli and macadamia nuts. For more information and reservations: contact 2736-0088 ext 3901. Food is edited by Margaret Sheridan, fax: 2562 2485