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Greenville Business Magazine

Ethnic Groceries: Niche Markets Grow In Greenville

Jan 02, 2018 01:07PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Dolph Bell

Alva Mak has sold Asian foods for a living since she moved to Spartanburg from her native Hong Kong more than 40 years ago. For most of that time, she owned and operated Chinese or Japanese restaurants at various locations around the Upstate.

This past summer, she began marketing Far East cuisine through a different kind of venue—a grocery. Her Asia Pacific Supermarket on Pleasantburg Drive is the latest in a growing number of ethnic groceries dotting the Greenville metro area.

These niche food stores are satisfying demand for items commonly eaten abroad but not in the United States—everything from squid to green plantains to dried chili peppers.

Local immigrants say they’ve traveled all the way to Atlanta in search of such items in the past and are glad to have more options for purchasing them closer to home.

At Mak’s 14,000-square-foot outlet near the TD Convention Center, shoppers will find live tilapia fish, dried seaweed, and dragon fruit, as well as a wide variety of rice, noodles, and teas.

A restaurant inside the grocery serves authentic Chinese dishes such as Peking duck. Also on the menu is bubble tea, a milky concoction with tapioca balls.

Gina McKinney, an Easley resident originally from the Philippines, said she was happy to find fresh king mackerel, her favorite fish, in the seafood department of Mak’s store. McKinney also said she likes the grocery/restaurant combination, an arrangement she’s accustomed to seeing in her native land.

“If we go to a department store, everything you need is in the department store—groceries, clothing, everything. After you go shopping, after you get everything you want, then you can go eat.”                                                                                                                                          

Globalization has made Greenville home to at least seven Asian groceries, as well as multiple markets specializing in the cuisines of India and Latin America.

At Compare Foods, one of three Hispanic groceries at the intersection of White Horse Road and Blue Ridge Drive, business has grown every month since the store opened last year where a Bi-Lo used to be, said manager Perfecto Paredes, a native of the Dominican Republic.

The 38,000-square-foot outlet is part of a chain that also does business in North Carolina and the Northeast. It aims to draw Hispanics while satisfying the mainstream U.S. shopper at the same time.

Paredes said about 60 percent of the customers are Hispanic, many of them originally from Mexico or Guatemala.

Signs are bilingual, and shelves are stocked with many brands that are household names in the U.S., such as Tide laundry detergent, Kellogg’s cereal, or Campbell’s soup.

Other stock is better known south of the border—San Marcos beans, Bimbo bread, and Presidente beer, “the No. 1 beer of the Caribbean.”

The first and only Compare Foods in South Carolina will pick up customers at their houses in a Ford van, provided they buy at least $50 worth of groceries.

“We try to be the neighborhood market,” Paredes said.

Most of Greenville’s ethnic groceries are smaller than the standard Bi-Lo or Publix. They commonly sell non-food items such as rice cookers, bamboo plantings, and foreign-language books.

India native Nimesh “Neil” Patel opened Radha Indian Grocers along Woodruff Road in 2009, and two other Indian groceries have opened along Woodruff Road since then.

The vegetarian-friendly fare at Patel’s store includes numerous varieties of lentils and rice, as well as spices such as turmeric and cumin. Store manager Navjvot Patel, brother of the owner, said most customers are natives of India, while others are originally from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Sri Lanka.

Some are in Greenville for a temporary gig, he said, such as providing information technology training at BMW, Infor, or General Electric. Others are engineering students at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

A National Trend

The emergence of an ethnic grocery industry in Greenville reflects a national trend that’s driven primarily by growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations, according to a December 2016 report by IBISWorld, a market research firm. Younger consumers aged 25 to 34 are also a factor as they experiment with alternative cuisines.

The industry is composed mostly of small firms, according to IBISWorld, but conventional grocery chains with greater purchasing power are trying to cut in on the action by expanding their ethnic food offerings.

One of them is Ingles, the regional grocery with headquarters near Asheville. Ingles tailors ethnic food offerings to the demographics of particular stores, according to Ron Freeman, the chain’s chief financial officer.

For example, the store in the Pickens County community of Liberty dedicates much more shelf space to the Latino foods section than to the Asian and Kosher food sections. Featured in the Latino foods section are products well-known to Mexico natives such as Jumex brand fruit juices and Goya brand beans.

Freeman cited the “increasing diversity of our customer base” as one reason Ingles established ethnic food sections a number of years ago.

Another reason is that consumers are becoming more adventuresome in the foods they are willing to try and cook at home, he said.

“We believe these trends will continue.”