Bob Shallit

Koreana Plaza owner wants to turn Rancho Cordova into destination spot

Koreana Plaza founder B.J. Yu at the entry to his new Red Alcove Korean barbecue restaurant.
Koreana Plaza founder B.J. Yu at the entry to his new Red Alcove Korean barbecue restaurant. Bob Shallit

A bit of Las Vegas-style glitz is coming soon to Koreana Plaza, the Rancho Cordova shopping center that’s perhaps the region’s most impressive commercial tribute to diversity.

Owner Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu is in the midst of expansion at the center, which already includes a Costco-size supermarket and food court with more than 80,000 products from well over 100 countries.

Next month, Yu is opening an upscale Korean barbecue restaurant, to be called Red Alcove, where guests can cook their own steaks and seafood on tabletop charcoal grills.

A nine-table billiards parlor also is opening soon next to the karaoke bar that Yu opened two years ago.

And the pièce de résistance? Yu has nearly completed an outdoor cocktail lounge, called Paradise, where guests can sample international drinks and nosh on appetizers until 2 a.m. while watching what the entrepreneur calls a “dancing water” display.

“There will be a pond with volcanoes in the center, with fire coming out of each one, and water shooting from one volcano to another,” said Yu, a youthful 57-year-old. All of it is orchestrated by a computer program to move the water in time with accompanying music.

Many commercial enterprises employ flames as striking visuals. Others, including some in Vegas, use water jets that are coordinated to music.

“But nobody incorporates both fire and water” in the same feature, said Larry Fults, Koreana Plaza’s director of new operations.

The various new operations all are part of Yu’s plan to bring “more fun” to the 18-acre shopping center on Olson Drive and to the entire Rancho Cordova area.

Since opening his supermarket there in 2003 and buying the surrounding center in 2012, he has lamented that the area is simply “too boring,” an assessment shared by various managers he’s brought in from his native South Korea to help run operations.

None stayed very long. “They weren’t expecting that much,” he said. “But they needed something. There was nothing.”

Expansion of the supermarket was a first step to remedy that. He has turned shopping into an international experience, with an ever-increasing number of products to serve the diverse ethnic populations in the area.

If there’s something I don’t have, you tell me. I want to carry it.

“B.J.” Yu

Yu stocks basic staples, like rice, albeit with varieties from numerous countries. But he also has arcane delicacies from around the globe, ranging from alligator legs to canned silkworms and Bulgarian pickled tomatoes.

You can find 300 varieties of sake or Russian vodka in a bottle shaped like a Kalashnikov rifle.

“If there’s something I don’t have, you tell me,” Yu said. “I want to carry it.”

Other attractions: a fresh seafood department with live catfish, sturgeon, frogs and turtles, a Russian and Persian bakery, a tortilla-making station and a deli with salted herring, smoked meats, European sausage and house-made salsas.

The food court opened two years ago. Then came the karaoke bar, where guests can hang out in private, themed rooms – “Elvis Presley Boulevard” and “Bourbon Street,” among them – and order food and drinks while crooning songs in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

The new features – billiards hall, the 100-seat restaurant and Paradise lounge – should be open in a month or so, pushing the center’s revenues beyond the current $36 million. Then Yu is moving on to his next plans, including turning the food court into a dance floor on weekend evenings with DJs brought in to play classic rock, hip-hop or other music.

Further down the road, Yu plans to convert a vacant building in the plaza into a Korean spa – a concept popular now in larger U.S. cities.

It will have separate women’s and men’s showers and saunas and a common area where guests can relax, purchase food and drink or use salon services. Small suites also will be available for those who have partied too much and need to crash.

Yu, who immigrated to this country when he was 19 and bought his first grocery store in the Bay Area 27 years ago, sees the spa as a vital element in his quest to turn “boring” Rancho Cordova into a novel and fun destination spot.

“It has to be done,” he said.