Christopher and Mora Worden were getting very tired of driving from Bangor to Portland several times a month to stock up on the Asian produce, dry goods, condiments and other items Mora, who grew up in China, needed to cook.
Items like vinegars, cooking wines, oils and fresh vegetables — other than napa cabbage and bok choy of sometimes questionable quality — were not available in the Bangor area.
Instead of making that long drive with their infant daughter in tow, they decided to bring the Asian market to Bangor.
Next week, the Wordens will open Fat Panda Boba Tea & Market, an Asian grocery and cafe, offering boba tea, bao buns and a full array of east and southeast Asian goods, catering to the region’s Asian community and lovers of Asian cuisine.
“We want to serve the Asian community here, and also hopefully be a place where people who are interested in Asian cuisines can learn even more about it,” said Chris Worden, 26, a Brewer native and the son of Peter and Kendall Worden.
Fat Panda, located at 324 Harlow St., next door to longstanding Bangor businesses like Gosselin’s Donuts and Bangor Floral, is painted in cheerful pink and purple, and boasts a long cafe counter at the back. In addition to a wide array of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean groceries, the Wordens will offer boba – or bubble tea – the popular Taiwanese drink composed of iced tea, dairy or vegan milk, sugar and boba, the tapioca pearls that come in many different fruit flavors.
They also plan to offer bao buns, the steamed buns filled with an array of items, like barbecued pork, fried chicken, spicy tofu and other fillings, both traditional and contemporary. Eventually, they plan to offer pre-packed Japanese bento boxes to go.
“We want to be the kind of place where it takes five minutes, max, for you to come in and get your lunch,” Worden said. “We’re pretty lucky in that we have plenty of parking out front, which is definitely a rarity for a lot of downtown.”
The Wordens took a circuitous route to opening a grocery and cafe. After graduating from college in New Jersey in 2016, Worden moved to Beijing, where he worked in finance and eventually met his future wife, attorney and Shanxi native Mora, whom he married in 2019. Both were burnt out from demanding careers in China – and Mora had recently become pregnant – so in December 2019, they moved to Washington state, near Vancouver. A few weeks later, the pandemic hit, and then their child, Siobhan, was born in May 2020.
“Our daughter didn’t realize other kids existed for the first year of her life,” Worden said. “We spent our first year-and-a-half in the U.S. completely stuck indoors. We definitely needed a change.”
The couple moved back to the Bangor area in May of this year, where the cost of living is much lower than in Washington, and where they could more easily pursue a dream they’d both longed for: the chance to be their own bosses.
“Neither of us had any retail experience, but we knew this was something we wanted to do, and we have learned so much in the past six months,” Worden said.
On the West Coast, Asian groceries don’t each cater to one specific segment of the Asian diaspora, like China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam or Thailand. There, Asian grocery stores can be as big as large western chains, and stock a full array of foods from across Asia. That’s what the Wordens will do with their shop.
Census data show that there are about 1,500 people of Asian descent living in Penobscot County, not including temporary residents like students at John Bapst High School, the University of Maine and Husson University. There are another thousand or so combined living in neighboring Hancock and Waldo counties. The Wordens believe that’s an underserved market.
“I timed it, and it’s about a 12-minute walk from John Bapst to our store,” Worden said. “We really think there’s a whole underserved community of Asian people in the area that this can cater to.”
Fat Panda Boba & Market will open the week of Dec. 13. For more information, like them on Facebook.