Why You Should Shop at Ethnic Grocery Stores

by Stefan Zajic

I’m here to convince you to shop at your local ethnic grocery stores.

I live in Philadelphia. The map above of where people of different ethnicities live in Philadelphia has red dots for whites, blue dots for blacks, and yellow dots for Hispanics. In the middle of the map, there’s a place in North Philadelphia where the north-south swath of Hispanic neighborhoods tapers down to a point and mixes with the black and white neighborhoods to the west and east. And right there, there’s a locally-owned grocery store called Cousin’s. Not surprisingly, it’s a fantastic place to shop for food.

It’s made even better by the fact that there’s a fairly strong Muslim community in North Philadelphia. So: Take a full service American supermarket, add two big aisles of Mexican/Spanish produce, meats and groceries (including all manner of hot peppers, salsas, queso fresco, chorizos, octopus, salt cod, all of those different kinds of beans and cornmeal, etc.), and then add a halal meat counter, Lebanese yogurt, and a whole aisle of Middle Eastern specialties (halva, tahini, sardines in spicy oil, etc.). It’s a dream to shop there. The prices are rock bottom, the selection is amazing, and the food quality is equal to or higher than any other major, regular-priced supermarket I’ve tried.

It’s become my favorite place to grocery shop, but I’ve had a tough time convincing any of my friends to give it a shot.

There are tremendous benefits to shopping at your local ethnic grocery store, even if only occasionally. You’ll definitely save money. A lot of money! The difference is really dramatic. At Cousin’s, most everything feels like it’s priced at 20 to 50 percent less than mass-market competitors. Five pounds of fresh chicken legs for $3; 18 large eggs for $2; a pound of unsalted butter for $2. And the prices are similarly low at my local Chinese market, where I sometimes shop for greens, pork, fish and Asian goods like sushi rice and coconut milk. Make no mistake: Shopping at an ethnic grocery will make a big difference in your monthly budget, enough so that it’s worth trying just for the savings.

You’ll also discover new foods, and new combinations of foods (the combination of Sriracha sauce with, well, just about everything is a good example). Those foods will typically be high quality and not over-processed (so, generally healthier!), because that’s what immigrant populations demand and expect. As economist Tyler Cowen noted in his article on shopping exclusively at his local Chinese grocery for a month:

When it comes to ethnic markets, most of the shoppers are well informed. They come from cultures where food preparation receives more attention than in the United States. They’re also largely immigrants or children of immigrants. Either they hail from cultures where most food prices are lower than they are here or the immigrants have lower incomes themselves, or both.

You’ll get outside of your usual loop and meet different people. And you’ll actually be shopping locally, with the money staying in your neighborhood or city, which probably isn’t the case with Trader Joe’s, headquartered in California (and owned by Germans), or Whole Foods, based in Texas.

So, why don’t people like me and my friends usually shop at ethnic groceries? The reasons I often hear are crime, selection, presentation and feeling like an outsider, whether due to language or ethnicity.

Crime? Well, if people are getting carjacked in the parking lot of your local ethnic grocery, don’t go there. But typically, grocery stores are built in fairly stable neighborhoods near large residential populations. I was surprised to find that there’s actually the same amount or maybe even more crime in my mostly white neighborhood as there is near Cousin’s. If this is a real concern for you, just go on the Internet and look up the statistics — you might be surprised.

In terms of selection, well, it’s true — your local ethnic grocery won’t have everything you’re used to, and that’s part of the point. As Cowen points outs:

The Safeway or Wegmans or corner market supplies a lot of convenient food… but that very convenience can make the local supermarket a rut. The deadening hand of routine takes over our shopping lives: We know what we want, where to find it, when to get it, and what to do with it. These habits can be the biggest obstacles to discovering new regions of the food universe.

The foods you miss from your American supermarket probably weren’t that good for you anyway, and being exposed to the new options at your ethnic grocery is bound to enhance your cooking and dining.

Presentation is one of the key differences between American and ethnic groceries. The wide aisles, gentle Muzak and carefully crafted shopping experiences at conventional supermarkets may make you feel comfortable, but you’re paying for it in the higher costs of your food, and in many cases those store design elements are pushing you towards more expensive, less healthy foods. At the very least, keeping you comfortable may well be keeping you in your routine, so you’ll keep shopping wherever you’re shopping. As with selection, breaking out of your rut and shopping in a place where it’s not immediately clear where to find your favorite foods can have great benefits on the variety of foods you cook and eat.

Addressing people’s discomfort at being in store where the main language isn’t English, or where almost everyone is of a different ethnicity, is complicated. But let me just say: Try not to let your comfort zones get in the way of your dinner, or the health of your pocketbook. Race relations in America are obviously complex, but being willing to stand in line at the supermarket with people who don’t look like you is a good start for everyone involved. And you can be sure that the owners of the supermarkets are glad to have more people shopping in their stores. Back when “urban food deserts” were a hot topic, a local TV station showed up at Cousin’s when I was shopping there to see just what scarce morsels of food might be found in the barren expanses of North Philadelphia. The store managers, who are of Middle Eastern descent, were dashing around the store in front of the cameras waving pineapples, fresh-baked pita, poblano peppers and giant avocados.

There are such great benefits to shopping at ethnic groceries, and the downsides almost entirely evaporate upon closer inspection. I’m not suggesting that you follow Tyler Cowen and shop exclusively at an ethnic grocery — just try to incorporate it into your routine occasionally. After all, for almost anyone who’s interested in both good food and not spending too much on groceries, it’s impossible to get everything you need at one store. Shopping at an ethnic grocery once a week, or even once a month, is bound to benefit your wallet, your taste buds, and maybe even your city and the people who live in it.

Stefan Zajic lives in Philadelphia and thinks about science all day. Map Credit: Eric Fischer

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