Multicultural specialty groceries add spice to retail

Sharon Fisher//November 12, 2018

Multicultural specialty groceries add spice to retail

Sharon Fisher//November 12, 2018

photo of basque market
Boise’s Basque Market features a number of groceries imported from the Basque region. Photo by Pete Grady.

Idaho may be famous for its potatoes, but increasingly you can find masa, doubanjiang, piment d’espelette and za’atar in its grocery stores.

While some of these ingredients require a visit to a multicultural specialty grocery that carries international food, traditional grocery stores are starting to carry these items as well.

Boise contains the largest number of such markets, but other parts of Idaho have international specialty groceries as well.

photo of tedder business center
Oriental Gifts & Food is located in the former Post Falls Outlet Mall, now known as the Tedder Business Center. File photo.

The grande dame of multicultural specialty groceries in Idaho is Oriental Gifts & Food, which has been in Northern Idaho for 48 years. For 30 of those years, the store has been at its current location in the Post Falls outlet mall, now refashioned as the Tedder Business Center.

“You name it, we have it,” said 70-something store manager Hong Newman, who came from Vietnam after marrying an Idaho soldier, who passed away four years ago. “You see it, you go, ‘Oh my God.’”

The Basque Market, located in Boise’s Basque Block, was started in 2001 in a former telephone substation, along with Bardenay, a restaurant that shares the space.

“Bardenay is where they would drive their service vehicles in,” said Tony Eiguren, who has co-owned the market with his wife Tara for 11 years. “We were the radio room.”

The market is about 900 square feet, while a kitchen and pantry bring the total space to about 1,500 square feet, he said.

photo of library plaza
The Idaho Capital Asian Market will be located in the former Library Plaza at Cole & Ustick. File photo.

Demand for Asian groceries in the Treasure Valley has led to a planned Asian-themed plaza at Library Plaza, on Cole and Ustick. The Idaho Capital Asian Market was scheduled to open in September with 18,000 square feet, including meat and fish and dry goods.

“There’s a little over 10,000 different type of products,” including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese and Thai ingredients, said Marcus Tam, an agent with Boise Premiere Real Estate, who represents the owners, China Town Plaza of Murray, Utah.

“Across the country, there are quite a few of these Asian grocery stores popping up everywhere – not just in large cities, but in cities the size of Boise,” Tam said.

While the area currently has a number of Asian markets, they are segregated by ethnic group, he said. “We see a need for one large place that can provide to all Asian groups.”

The plaza is also expected to include three or four Asian-themed restaurants, as well as keeping the existing library and Sockeye Brewing as tenants, Tam said. The grocery store renovation is expected to cost between $1.3 million and $1.5 million, he said. The plaza is also scheduled to include a Chinese-style gate at the entrance.

photo of basque market dining
The Basque Market was able to survive the recession by adding dining and catering. Photo by Pete Grady.

Prepared food offerings on the rise

A number of multicultural specialty grocery stores have found that they need to turn to offering prepared food, either through catering or serving directly to customers, to survive, as well as to meet  customers’ needs.

“My wife and I, before we bought the market, we were doing catering already,” Eiguren said. “It wasn’t a huge stretch to push that a little more.”

Without the catering, the market might not have survived the recession of 2007-2008, he said. “Hopefully we’re past that.”

Newman helps visitors by showing them how to cook traditional food using the ingredients in her store.

When customers discover that non-traditional ingredients or groceries they bought online don’t make the dish taste right, Newman steps in with free recipes and tips.

“They need me because they want to eat real food,” she said. “You want the real thing, go down here.”

She also attributed her success to hard work.

photo of ishtar market
Ishtar Market in Boise features a variety of Middle Eastern groceries as well as an attached restaurant. Photo by Pete Grady.

Similarly, Ishtar Market in Boise has a small restaurant in its 3,000 square foot store on Overland, which is leased and opened in 2010, according to owner Asam Mujili.

About 500 Middle Eastern students who attended Boise State University have left, which “hurt the business a little bit,” he said.

Other colleges, such as Idaho State University, have also reported losing some Middle Eastern students, according to the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems.

Ishtar sells Middle Eastern groceries such as candies, cheese, coffee, beans and spices, and prepares food such as falafel, hummus, eggplant and kabobs, Mujili said.

photo of asam mujili
Iraqi immigrant Asam Mujili and his family own Ishtar Market, a combination restaurant, market and bakery in Boise. File photo.

While multicultural specialty markets may be geared toward a particular ethnicity, increasingly they are serving a broader clientele as well, store operators said.

“The majority of our clients are not Basque,” Eiguren said.

Similarly, while the Treasure Valley hosts 20,000 Asians, “the majority of the business and the clientele we expect to be the general population,” Tam said. “We are expecting more non-Asian customers than just Asian.”

Oriental Gifts & Food caters to summer residents of Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, Newman said.

Being on the Basque block helps the Basque Market pick up a lot of tourists, which means Eiguren often fills in for the Basque Museum if they’re closed. “We sell memories,” he said.

Traditional grocery stores stocking international ingredients

Increasingly, traditional grocery stores such as Walmart, Winco, Fred Meyer, and Albertsons are stocking international ingredients, as are specialty grocery stores such as the Boise Co-op and Whole Foods.

“We listen to a lot of the needs they’re asking for,” said Tracy Hansen, store manager of the Twin Falls Walmart Supercenter, which has expanded its selection of Hispanic foods a little, and Asian groceries more so, as well as Indian food. “If it sells, we bring more in, and if not, it shrinks back down,” he said. “The response has been good. Whenever we expand something, it usually sells.”

While Twin Falls has been known as a community where refugees have been settling, Hansen wasn’t aware of any specific requests from these communities. “I treat all the requests the same, and if I can get it in, I get it in,” he said.

In addition, while Walmart does have special sections for Hispanic food and so on, the international groceries are integrated with other types of food as well, Hansen said. For example, a chocolate mix that is geared toward Hispanic customers is situated with the cocoa mixes as well as on the Hispanic aisle.

Walmart doesn’t track who’s buying the food to see whether it’s people from that ethnic group or not.

“My opinion is that everybody is purchasing that kind of food,” Hansen said. “There’s not any one ethnicity buying that food.”