Ethnic home cooking goes suburban…

Cook Vietnamese pho with imported rice sticks, grab some fermented soybeans, or just purchase some banana flower or Korean bean sprouts. The reviews are in: Oriental Pantry is a hit in Minot, a North Dakota city of 47,000 that has seen a 17 percent population increase since 2010. This is a city where Asians were less than 1 percent of the population in 2000; now, they’re at least 3 percent.

In cities like Minot, those numbers are only likely to climb. The Pew Research Center says foreign-born immigration has driven half of America’s population growth since 1965. And in the next 50 years, it will account for 88 percent — meaning a radical shift in the makeup of the US.

The new immigrants are Asian and Latin, and by 2065, Pew predicts Asians will be the dominant foreign-born group in America — 38 percent of all immigrants.

As immigrants move farther into America, into smaller cities and suburbs, they’re opening new businesses, including ethnic groceries. These markets are the new battleground for diversity, part of a fight chain supermarkets may very well lose if they fail to adapt.


Joining this new immigrant population in smaller cities are millennials. In Ward County, N.D., home of Minot, the median age has dropped from 32.6 to 30 in just the last five years, with the age 20-40 population jumping from 19,000 to nearly 25,000. Millennials seek cheaper living, better quality of life and more job opportunities. Minot has all of that.

How does this affect the grocery scene? Millennials want inexpensive groceries and fresh, clean ingredients. They’ll hit the local farmers’ market or farm stand for fruits and vegetables, then visit the butcher for fresh proteins. Dry goods? They’re buying in bulk at warehouse-style retailers like Costco. But they’re also more globally connected than past generations and won’t settle for traditional “American” staples like meat loaf, potatoes and corn.

A recent Hartman Group study showed 40 percent of millennials surveyed want ethnic and “different” cuisine; that’s up from about 34 percent of past generations. Plus, they want small plates and fast-food service for quality ingredients, not GMO-heavy, saturated-fat-laden Big Macs.

Plus, fast food is going mobile.

Millennials are partly responsible for the nationwide surge in food trucks, which concentrate on a variety of cuisine. They’ve been showing up in larger cities like Austin, Texas, for some time, but smaller cities are seeing a surge. Greenville, S.C. — population 61,000 — has a weekly food truck rodeo during the summer, featuring everything from a taco truck to a Greek truck to a truck putting spins on “traditional” cuisine. Think a beef-and-cheese empanadas with chipotle mayonnaise.

Add it up: Millennials’ tastes are more diverse than previous generations. And as they start cooking meals for their families, they’ll want to remain adventurous in the kitchen. This means the ethnic grocery store can thrive.

How are ethnic groceries growing? IBISWorld reported in 2014 $29 billion in revenues in the ethnic grocery industry, with 1.8 percent growth per year, over five years.

This growth is already happening in larger cities with higher ethnic populations. The Baltimore Sun recently reported on the growth of EMD Sales Inc., an international food vendor with $37.5 million in sales. It supplies 2,600 items from 17 countries to chains along the East Coast. Cities like Baltimore are filled with ethnic grocery options, and millennials — accustomed to easier cultural access — respond with dollars and debit cards.


The massive immigration that brings new foods and businesses isn’t an American trend alone; it’s occurring in developed countries worldwide. Germany had a net migration of 550,000 people in 2014; in Greece, 155,000 migrants entered the country by July, most coming from war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

History tells us the impact migrants have on the cuisine of their new homes. Los Angeles is home to dozens of Persian restaurants because Iranian immigrants flocked to Southern California in the 1970s and ’80s, fleeing a revolutionary war. EMCO Finer Foods sells Hungarian and Eastern European products with two locations in Saskatoon, Canada. Why? Hungarian Canadians, whose families fled the 1956 Hungarian revolution, make up 2.5 percent of the population of the Saskatchewan province.

Germany’s largest ethnic group? Turks. The Wirtschaftswunder of the mid-20th century — a labor deal between West Germany and Turkey — brought thousands of Turks north. Turks comprise 5.7 percent of the population in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. In its city of Munster, population 296,599, Turkish markets like Araz Food, and restaurants like Deniz and Merhaba, are plentiful.

As migrants continue to flee war-torn nations and settle in developed countries, they will transform their cuisine, introducing their products through ethnic groceries and markets. And the socially connected young adults of these developed nations will gladly experiment.  


In America, ethnic groceries are the perfect antidote to the cold chain supermarkets dominating suburban shopping centers. They’re cozy, some as small as bodegas; are run by immigrants who can tell the story of the foods they sell; and best yet, are cheaper than any major supermarket, especially a neo-hippie giant like Whole Foods.

Plus, ethnic groceries fill a demand not supplied by even farmers’ markets — produce like yucca and lotus root.

Some chain supermarkets are responding, but in small doses. Publix, a major chain in Florida, recently expanded ethnic-food offerings while ensuring the sale of sushi in all locations. Most major supermarkets do this now — a chef assembles spicy tuna rolls in a dark corner of the supermarket, next to the lunch meat. It isn’t enough; a LoyaltyOne survey says 63 percent of ethnic shoppers can’t find enough variety at the supermarket.

And get this: 65 percent of non-ethnic shoppers would cook more ethnic foods if options were more readily available. The heat is on chain supermarkets to respond, or suffer tremendously.

So what should they do?

One Greek foods manufacturer recently wrote on a supermarket industry trade website that chains need to step to the front of the ethnic trend. He recommended stores offer recipe cards that utilize ethnic ingredients, and host cooking classes — both in person and on video — to show how to cook with ethnic foods.   TJ  

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