The experience of hitting the Friday evening rush at 85°C Bakery Café typically involves several loops around the parking lot and a wait at the end of a slow-moving line, dozens of patrons long. During the busiest stretches, an employee mans the entrance, bouncer-style, making sure the number of people inside complies with the fire code.

With nearly 3,700 Yelp reviews averaging four stars, the bakery is arguably the biggest draw at Diamond Jamboree, a 114,000-square-foot, autumn-toned shopping center that has become the closest thing Irvine has to a downtown district.

Article Tab: A view of part of the Diamond Jamboree shopping center at Alton Parkway and Jamboree Boulevard in Irvine. Several of the businesses located in the internationally-known center are open until midnight.
A view of part of the Diamond Jamboree shopping center at Alton Parkway and Jamboree Boulevard in Irvine. Several of the businesses located in the internationally-known center are open until midnight.

Diamond Jamboree owner at a glance

Company: Diamond Development Group/Diamond Jamboree Ltd.

President: Alethea Hsu, a Taiwanese-born physician, is one of seven siblings who own equal shares in the family’s real-estate development business. She earned an executive MBA from UCLA in 2004 and also is the medical director of arehabilitation center in Los Angeles.

Headquarters: San Gabriel, Calif.

Retail properties: Diamond Plaza, Rowland Heights; San Marino Square, San Marino; Victoria Square, Rancho Cucamonga; Diamond Jamboree, Irvine

Source: Diamond Development Group

Since the Asian-centric plaza opened five years ago, the Irvine outpost of 85°C has become the No. 1 revenue-generating store for the company, a publicly traded business in Taiwan with more than 500 locations overseas. The bakery produces more than 900 items each day – with sales driven by a steady foot traffic of customers seeking premium Taiwanese bread and pastries – blueberry cream-cheese filled Berry Tales, mochi egg tarts, marble taro buns – freshly baked from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Ariel Chen, who has worked as assistant store manager since the bakery’s opening in 2008 and now heads up American marketing efforts, noted the Irvine location was the company’s first in the United States. “The company waited for Diamond Jamboree to be built,” she said. “Our COO chose Irvine to start with not just because it has a good community and good schools, but it has a mix of customers who are willing to try new things.” she said. The company has since parlayed its success at Diamond Jamboree into three additional locations in Hacienda Heights, West Covina and Chino Hills, with five new Southern California stores to open by the end of the year.

The 85°C story mirrors the overall growth of the shopping center, which is owned by San Gabriel-based Diamond Development Group. While many retail properties in the region – and the country – still are floundering, the shops andrestaurants at Diamond Jamboree not only are bucking the trend, but actually catapulting Irvine into international prominence.

When the shopping center opened in September 2008, well into the recession, Diamond Jamboree boasted more than 70 percent occupancy. International news outlets covered the phenomenon, attributing the success to the increasing wealth of Chinese consumers.

“It’s one of the highest-performing retail developments in America because of a fundamental shift in the economic and demographic landscape in the U.S.,” said James Chung, president of New York-based research and strategy firm Reach Advisors. “Income growth is higher in the Asian population than any other, and it’s an example of how a smaller developer is beating out giants not because of size and scope, but because … they are in the right place at the right time, with the right execution.”

The 2010 Census revealed that in the past decade, the nation’s Asian population grew by 46 percent – 11.9 million to 17.3 million, faster than any other race group. In Irvine, 43 percent of residents identify themselves as Asian, a number that is likely to grow given the city’s popularity with Asian immigrants. The Diamond Jamboree website lists average household income within a five-mile radius at $88,090.

The International Council of Shopping Centers tracks the general increase of shopping centers targeting Asian shoppers, citing other success stories such as the world’s largest Mitsuwa Japanese marketplace in Edgewater, N.J.; and Everest Heights, the first South Asian mall in Irving, Texas, which broke ground in 2009 and serves more than 100,000 South Asians living in North Texas.

Amid the local success of Diamond Jamboree, the center’s merchants and shoppers grapple with a constant headache.

“If there is one flaw, it’s parking,” Chung said. There’s often a bottleneck at the main entrance off Alton Parkway, and even with a code-compliant, multilevel parking garage with more than 700 spots – on top of the surface lot – hunting for a space can add long minutes to expected arrival times. Still, Chung sees the parking woes as another indicator of success. “It’s lousy for the shopper, but as a developer, it means you’re doing something right.”

Also factoring into Diamond Jamboree’s popularity is a unique approach to design. “We planned it from scratch. It was not a remodel, so we were able to have everything in the direction we wanted,” said Diamond Jamboree LTD President Alethea Hsu.

The center sits on the site of former offices of medical device company B. Braun, and because of its location in the Irvine Business Complex district, is not subject to a curfew. To take full advantage of that, the developers installed plenty of outdoor seating; and instead of having the anchor, Korean grocer H Mart, take up the traditional central position in a shopping plaza, they located the tenant in a separate, freestanding unit on the edge of the complex, allowing patrons to walk around more freely.

Another important business driver has been the strategic selection of high-potential businesses that also could appeal to a diverse clientele. The center, which has more than 30 tenants, doesn’t display non-English signsage, and instead of the small mom-and-pop shops often found in many Asian malls, several tenants are well-known brands globally, and are using word of mouth and its Irvine location as a launching pad for a U.S. debut or expansion.

Take 85°C, so named because company founder Wu Cheng Hsueh believes that to be the optimum temperature at which to serve coffee (195°F). In the fall, the company will relocate its headquarters from Irvine to Brea, where 85°C has purchased a large warehouse facility to support a statewide expansion effort.

“Asian people in California already know (85), so the word spread,” Chen said of the rapid growth. “When we first started … our transactions were between $700 and $1000 a day. Now people in San Francisco are stopping by when they are in town for the weekend, and our average daily sales are $2,200,” she said.

Revolving sushi bar Kula and CoCo Ichiban Ya curry house are household names in Japan. Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle is already a big hit in China and Canada. Capital Seafood, known for its dim sum, expanded into South Orange County after its success at Diamond Jamboree.

“We are currently talking to another well-known tenant that is about to go public in Asia. Before that, they want to open their first flagship store in the U.S. at Diamond Jamboree … in the next three to four months,” Hsu said.

That would leave just two vacancies in a center surrounded by luxury-apartment complexes and a diverse mix of families and Instagram-happy students looking for nontraditional retail and dining experiences. Hsu is looking into accessories kiosks, and hoping to fill the remaining spots with businesses that will contribute to Diamond Jamboree’s reputation as a lifestyle center. .

According to Hsu, there’s a simple answer why the center is so busy: “We know people like to hang out. So we planned a place where people could hang out.”

Diamond Jamboree to-do list

With more than 30 shops and eateries, the options can be overwhelming. Here’s a sample of what to eat, drink and do at Diamond Jamboree.

85ºC Bakery Café: Sea salt coffee, marble taro bread

Balcony California Grill and Bar: Lychee aloe mojito; Taiwanese stinky tofu (doused in a fermented brine)

BCD Tofu House: Korean tofu, open 24/7

Bon Épi Patisserie & Café: 20-plus types of French macarons; strawberry croissant

Capital Seafood Restaurant: daily dim sum; $12 Peking Duck specials

Guppy House: shaved snow dessert (bring people to split with)

Majestic Spa: Chinese reflexology foot massage

Plush Karaoke Lounge: private rooms for parties of up to 30 (lyrics in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese)

Salon Loxy: Japanese straightening treatment; plant-based hair coloring

Urban Seoul: pork belly tacos, kalbi sliders

$ell SmArt… with Art!