On the surface, Asheville may appear as a monopolized land of big name grocery stores and has recently yielded a wave of new chain food stores popping up in various locations. Travelling along the Merrimon Avenue corridor in stop and go traffic, and then fighting for parking spaces in the claustrophobic parking lots will most likely be what you encounter if you hit up the big three on the much anticipated strip just north of Asheville, home to Green Life, Trader Joe’s, and Harris Teeter.
[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]et hidden in the crooks and crannies, hiding from the Publix and Fresh Market conglomerates, are a wide range of unique grocery stores that may fly under the radar, yet offer an assortment of ingredients not commonly found in an average market. This variety is great news for those Ashevillians who wish to seek out diversity in their food options.
Where else can you find horseradish leaves, fried bean curd, shrimp chips, preserved duck eggs, or the biggest bag of dried anchovies, eyeballs intact, you have ever seen? These may not be on your daily grocery list, but in a town littered with foodies, interesting restaurants, and adventurous eaters and chefs, these seemingly bizarre ingredients can be goldmines.
To find these rare gems you may have to venture off the beaten path and look for the unexpected fare in the unexpected places, hidden in strip malls away from the hustle and bustle of the after work mobs and their pre-dinner rush. Those hectic bright lights and crowded aisles are quite the contrast to the small, yet tightly packed shelves of the ethnic food stores dispersed throughout Buncombe County.
These specialty shops provide service to a specific type of customer. The shoppers here are either in the market for a special ingredient that no chain grocery store will carry, or are looking for inspiration in a desired cultural cuisine. There is a sense of who the frequent patrons are and who the newbies are. One might encounter sideways glances, and sometimes little help is offered spontaneously. This is a place of exploration and a little bit of daring.
The Asheville foodie scene is one to be reckoned with, and as downtown expands and spills over into West Asheville and the outlying communities, so also has the range of tastes. International cuisine is found around every corner. Korean, Jamaican, Brazilian, or Spanish, there is something for every palate.
With such a variety of styles it is not surprising that this international theme reaches beyond restaurant establishments and into grocery stores, but who is it that is shopping here and what exactly are they looking for?
Not Your Average Grocery Store
At the Foreign Affairs Oriental Market in East Asheville two women are found looking over an aisle of ingredients such as Mud Fish Sauce and Green Ai-yu Jelly. They excitedly pick up ingredients, turning them over in their hands and investigating the details. They ask a worker behind the counter a question, and she immediately points them in a direction of seemingly more exciting items.
At the register another customer inquires if they carry Gunpowder Green Tea, explaining that she has been looking everywhere and can’t find it. Unfortunately this market doesn’t have it either, but C.J., the owner’s son, quickly expresses that he will call and order the specialty tea, jots down her name and phone number, promising to call as soon as the order arrives.
This is the type of service one can only get at a family owned establishment. Sure, Ingles has an international food aisle, but you are not likely to find dried Codfish or Lotus Root, and they most likely are not going to order it for you.
Sharon Domingo, the owner of Foreign Affairs Oriental Market, is a lively character. She talks fast and laughs heartily. A self-proclaimed workaholic, she jokes that her son makes her take a day off occasionally. Such is the life of a family business. She dons an apron with rhinestones labeling her ‘Queen of Everything,’ an apt title once you get to know her and her knowledge of the industry. She is certainly the matriarch and the decision maker.
Behind the counter, Sharon proudly displays pictures of her family and pulls them down to show you their faces up close and tell you their story. Each has played a part in the business and continues to do so. The only picture they have of all of the family together is a marketing picture for the store. Someone is always working behind the counter, which makes it difficult for inclusive family outings. For years she raised her family in the Philippines, and it has always been important for her that her children learn about different cultures.
Her family has owned the business for fourteen years. She recalls growing up in the country and having the experience of store owners personally knowing each customer and their family. In a sense this is her business model. They offer a hands on experience to grocery shopping. It is common for her to reference a cookbook behind the counter and find a recipe specifically for a customer.
“That’s what it is all about. Why not teach you while you are here? I can teach you any meal and have it ready in 20 minutes or less and on the table, whether you are feeding two people or six.”
Sharon says that most of the time she can tell that customers have something in mind that they want even if they haven’t realized it. Her joy comes from talking to people and helping them find what they are looking for, and then seeing them get excited about it.
The family travels to markets in Atlanta and other southern cities to seek out exotic produce and ingredients from around the world. The one they frequent the most is larger than a Super Walmart, and they often encounter various cultures and languages, always looking for new and rare items. They believe in practical knowledge and specialize in researching how a product is traditionally used, and then in turn have fun experimenting with it in new ways. Every new item they carry in the store they take home and try first so that they can fully explain to customers how to use it.
C.J. will gladly guide you to one of the coolers and pull out an item such as the Dragonfruit, which he describes as weird in a fun and friendly way. He will ask you to touch the waxy surface as he delves into an in depth description of not just how it tastes remarkably sweet and soft, but how it grows, pollinates, and how the nectar forms the pointy leaves.
You can follow him down the aisles as he points out his childhood favorite, a jar of Halo-Halo, sweet beans mixed with fruit and coconut. His passion is learning and sharing with people. He tells the story of a woman coming in to find out information about Korean culture for a visitor coming to stay with her. He spent hours explaining to her different customs such as what the different handshakes mean.
Oftentimes people enter the store in search of an item that they have been given misinformation about. Many traditional ingredients have medicinal qualities, but only if purchased and used properly. C.J. prides himself on finding out as much information as possible in order to truly inform and educate their patrons. They offer customer service on a much different level.
Many of their clientele have relocated to Asheville from somewhere in which they previously shopped at a local ethnic grocery store, and they are in search of a similar experience. They may be accustomed to certain items that Foreign Affairs does not currently carry, but Sharon will do their best to accommodate. They have a list behind the counter of ingredients they are searching for, such as items specifically requested by a Nigerian customer who is doing work at the Biltmore Estate. Whole Foods had directed them to Foreign Affairs for the specialty ingredients they seek, a testament to the unique service they provide.
Many restaurants in the area shop at the food market and they happily offer wholesale prices. It is not unusual to find a food truck owner with a box of ingredients leaving the store. They also cater to families that are on a limited budget, and because of this have changed their policy to accept food stamps.
They know that there are other specialty food stores in the area and have no problem sending customers to them if they can’t find what they are looking for. Their purpose is not to crush other small businesses. They are not looking to compete, but to offer something different.
“Even if we were offered a million dollars, we wouldn’t sell the business because we don’t feel like there is anywhere else around that cares about their customers as much as we do,” C.J. proudly explains. “If we don’t share our knowledge, it is like it never existed.”
Around the World in a Day
The Foreign Affairs Market is just one of many specialty food stores in the area. You can also find Oriental and Asian markets in South Asheville and West Asheville. There are a number of European markets and a handful of Hispanic markets throughout the region as well.
Most of these grocery stores are family owned and offer ingredients that showcase their culture. They are places where people can gather for a taste of home or for a taste of something unusual and interesting. In one shopping trip, you can stop by the European market and sample from their wall of jars hosting ingredients such as olive leaf powder, rose hips, wild yam, or devil’s claw root. There are coolers of sausage and cheese and Kefir. Specialty candies are sold by the pound.
Next, you can make a quick stop at the Asian market for salted jellyfish, pickled burdock, and shredded squid, and then swing by the Hispanic market for Queso Fresco, whole dried chili peppers, and Crema Mexicana.
The monotony of daily grocery shopping is certainly trumped by the presence of these markets and their explosion to your senses. In larger cities it is not uncommon to find niche markets and entire ethnic sections of communities. Yet in a seemingly small town, Asheville offers a wide array of food possibilities.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asheville’s population is 79.3% White, with Asian and Hispanic collectively representing 7.9%. So the question remains, is it abnormal for so many ethnic grocery stores to be thriving in this area? Last year an article was published in the New York Times describing how American tastes are branching out. They studied a report by the Mintel Group, a market research firm, showing that sales of ethnic foods in grocery stores will grow more than 20% between 2012 and 2017.
So the fact that the rest of the country is becoming more adventurous in their food purchases seems to coincide with the trend here in Asheville. Even though Asheville is a small town, or maybe despite this fact, it will continue to uphold its claim to diversity and uniqueness, especially when it comes to food.
FIND MORE FOREIGN FARE
Asheville Asian Mart
5606 Hendersonville Rd, Fletcher, NC | 828-651-8989
Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts
5 Regent Park Blvd Ste 110, Asheville, NC | 828-254-7235
Lee’s Asian Market
1950 Hendersonville Rd, Asheville, NC | 828-676-1499
Foreign Affairs Oriental Market
611 Tunnel Rd Ste A, Asheville, NC | 828-299-0333
Negozio’s Italian Deli & Grocery
2000 Spartanburg Hwy Ste 100, Hendersonville, NC | 828-692-0380
148 Hendersonville Crossing Plz, Hendersonville, NC | 828-698-8676
Dona Juanita Grocery Store
1078 Tunnel Rd Ste D, Asheville, NC | 828-298-8893
2111 Asheville Hwy, Hendersonville, NC | 828-697-0329
1341 Parkwood Ave, Asheville, NC | 828-255-8484
European Food Store
1483 Patton Ave # B, Asheville, NC | 828-252-9700