NEW YORK - Scores of shoppers browse the aisles of the Hong Kong Supermarket store in Queens, N.Y., inspecting purple Chinese eggplant and tapping melons for ripeness. Others push their carts past live turtles and lobsters in the seafood section.
“You can find things that you can’t find in other supermarkets,’’ said Candice Siewarga, as she bagged green shoots of yu choy.
Just a few years ago, there were six Super 88 Asian grocery stores in Greater Boston, including the one in Malden, that bustled in the same way, as consumers hunted for a taste of home among the 20 brands of soy sauce, hundreds of different noodles, and 76 varieties of rice.
Today, Super 88 founder Peter Luu and his son George - diverted by a costly business venture in Vietnam - are abandoning their crumbling supermarket empire. They shuttered three stores last year, and in the rest, customers complain of dingy conditions and understocked shelves.
Now, three entrepreneurs are vying for ownership of the remaining three Super 88 stores. Two buyers - a local couple with 30 years in the food industry and a New Jersey businessman with an Asian market in Quincy - have each filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court to protect deals to purchase individual stores. The third potential owner, a jet-setting New Yorker with a successful Asian grocery chain of his own, claims to have bought all three Super 88 markets and has already begun to move in.
The interest in Super 88 is unsurprising, said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “Super 88 was one of the first to move out of the Chinatown orbit, when it opened in South Bay Center,’’ Watanabe said. “It had scale. It clearly had the feel of a chain.’’
But in recent years, the stores have been squeezed by rivals, including the Kam Man in Quincy and C Mart in Chinatown.
Once the Super 88 stores began to decline, “they quickly became shells of their former selves,’’ Watanabe said. Now consumers of Asian foods are looking for a replacement, he said.
New York businessman Jeffrey Wu announced last month that his Hong Kong Supermarket Inc. is purchasing the entire Super 88 chain - three stores in Dorchester, Allston, and Malden, where “coming soon’’ signs announce that Hong Kong Supermarket is on the way.
“He’s going to be focused on the stores until they are up and running the way he wants them to be,’’ said attorney Hayes Young.
Wu’s company operates about a dozen Hong Kong Supermarkets, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California, with annual gross sales of $125 million and about 800 employees, according to Young.
Young said Boston shoppers will see “a much lighter, brighter, spiffier, cleaner operation,’’ adding the Super 88 stores will become much like the store in Queens.
There, manager Dong Li wandered the 20,000-square-foot market, pointing out a special display of moon cakes, a Chinese pastry. On the wall was a 2008 “finest supermarket’’ award from a local Chinese community group.
Deliveryman Ji Liong Tjhia said he brings stock here three times a week. “I also make deliveries to another supermarket, but Hong Kong Supermarket is the best,’’ Tjhia said.
But the New York company’s takeover of the Super 88 chain could be undone by lawsuits that claim two of the three Super 88 stores were promised to other buyers.
In its filing, Wincent International Inc., New Jersey parent company of Quincy’s Kam Man market, said it made a $2 million deal to buy the Super 88 at the South Bay shopping center in Dorchester in late July - roughly one month before Hong Kong Supermarket said it was buying all the stores.
Attorney Howard P. Speicher said his client, Wincent International president Wellman Wu, intends to turn the Dorchester Super 88 into a Kam Man market.
Gary and Doris Wong, owners of local wholesaler Food-Pak Express, said they made a deal with the Luus in mid-August to purchase the Super 88 in Allston for $3.2 million. They, too, have filed suit to protect their claim.
Doris Wong said when they first heard the Allston Super 88 store was for sale, they viewed it as a way to expand their presence and keep a local business alive. The couple hope to cater to students like their daughter, who attends Boston University.
“All different people come here from all over the world for college, so we thought we had a good opportunity to expand our product line,’’ said Gary Wong.
As for the Luu family, repeated calls to their homes and businesses, both here and in Vietnam, have gone unanswered, and a request for an interview made through a family lawyer was not granted.
The Luus are building a 1,200-room hotel and casino in Vietnam, a project that may not be going well, according to representatives of the local Asian community. It was originally expected to cost $150 million, but more recently, Peter Luu planned to invest up to $4.1 billion in the project through his company, Winvest, according to the foreign affairs department of the Bà Ria-Vung Tàu province in Vietnam.
A 2008 suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court accused the Luus of defaulting on a lease for a new store in Worcester, alleging that George Luu had “siphoned away assets’’ of Winvest and Super 88 and “absconded to Vietnam.’’ The Luu family denied the claims and the case was eventually settled, records show.
However, according to court documents, the Luus currently owe several hundreds of thousands of dollars to a handful of vendors that provided stock to Super 88 stores. At least one vendor has asked a judge to seize property owned by the Luus to force the family to pay its debts.
That’s a long way to fall for a family whose patriarch, Peter Luu, arrived in Boston in 1979, following his family’s flight from Vietnam, and built Super 88 into a grocery chain that was well regarded by customers and vendors.
Today, that reputation is bruised.
“Four or five years ago, payment was very good,’’ said John Lau, whose company Tin World Inc. of New York supplied Super 88 stores with fruits and vegetables. Now, he says, Super 88 owes him more than $400,000, and “I had to borrow money from the bank already to pay credits because they don’t pay me.’’
Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com.