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Will the Supermarket Spell Doom for South Asian Convenience Stores?

If other immigrant groups are any indication, chain supermarkets' embrace of different cuisines could mean trouble for small South Asian grocers.
An Indian grocer in New York City, pictured here in 2008.

An Indian grocer in New York City, pictured here in 2008.

Malti Prajapati stands at the checkout counter of her convenience store, chopping the cauliflower that will eventually become her family's dinner that evening. The store is tiny and vibrant, stacked to the brim with fragrant spices, imported sweets, and the latest Bollywood films. An image of the Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, welcomes customers at the entrance, along with the soft hum of Bollywood tunes. Prajapati nods and smiles at customers as they walk in, as her hands continue expertly dicing away at the little mound of vegetables.

Prajapati, 52, and her husband moved to the United States in 1981, opening a convenience store in Santa Barbara, California, that supplies both American and South Asian (also referred to as Desi) goods.

"Indians in the community began asking for our culture's food—basmati rice, lentils, this and that. So we slowly started stocking more and more of our Desi groceries," Prajapati says. "We thought it'd be easier to open our own business. We have peace of mind being our own bosses."

Owning and operating small businesses like Prajapati's convenience store is a common trend among immigrant communities: As of 2012, there were 1.9 million Asian American-owned businesses in the U.S., generating $699.4 billion in revenue.

According to C.N. Le, a professor at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst whose research focuses on Asian-American immigration and business, this trend can often be attributed to labor market discrimination against recent immigrants: Immigrants may not be fluent in English, their home country's educational credentials may not be recognized in the U.S., or there may simply be racial discrimination by the employer. These difficulties prevent immigrants from other types of work, resulting in many opting to be their own bosses, as Prajapati describes.

Out of all major racial and ethnic groups, says Le, Asian Americans are most likely to own their own small business: These small businesses are scattered throughout Koreatowns, Chinatowns, Little Indias, and other ethnic enclaves that exist wherever large populations of a community reside.

"Particularly when you have a growing community, they're going to expect and demand services, goods, products that they're familiar with. That's where the immigrant small business comes into the picture. This has been the case thoughout U.S. history," Le says. Stores like Prajapati's become central to the immigrant experience, not only for the scarcely found ingredients they provide, but for their secondary role as de facto community centers.

"It represents a loss, when these more traditional elements of culture get subsumed under a very sanitized, American identity." 

"People gather, they socialize, they talk about their kids, talk about politics here in the U.S. and politics back in their home country," Le says. "They fulfill both an economic function and a cultural function. That's part of the appeal Asian-American communities count on."

In the last decade ingredients traditionally only found within the aisles of a small, immigrant-owned grocery are finding their ways into the aisles of large supermarkets. Most supermarkets now carry a section specifically for ethnic ingredients, ranging from turmeric to tahini.

Sales in the ethnic food sector continue to climb, reaching $8.7 billion in 2012, reflecting the increasing desire for cultural foods in the American market.

"It's not a positive development for the mom and pop ethnic grocery stores," Le says. "It's related to the Walmart phenomenon, where Walmart comes into a community, they drive out various small businesses. That same thing is happening to some degree to Asian, ethnic grocery stores."

Supermarkets such as Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions attribute this expansion into ethnic ingredients as a means to cater to all their customers.

"In order to celebrate the diversity of our customers, we are continually listening to customer feedback and seek ways we can cater to these distinct requests," a spokesperson for Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions writes in an email exchange.

But if history is a guide, it's this very sort of mainstreaming that can present challenges to small ethnic businesses.

In the 1920s and '30s, Jewish delis numbered at least 1,500 in New York City alone. Now, according to Ted Merwin, a Judaic studies professor at Dickinson College, there are only about 15 proper Jewish delis left in the city. Merwin uses similar language to Le in talking about the role these immigrant-owned stores played: Jewish delis served more than just cultural food; they were a community gathering space.

The intra-war period was the heyday for these delis, Merwin says, catering to the three million Jewish residents in the U.S. and their desires for cultural familiarity in food and people.

But the number of Jewish delis quickly declined post-World War II, according to Merwin, when the population climbed to 4.5 million and Jews, in turn, become more assimilated into mainstream American society.

"After World War II, it wasn't as acceptable to be so openly anti-Semitic, and so Jews start to have a lot more opportunities economically and socially," says Merwin, no longer necessitating community self-employment.

In addition, Merwin says that an uptick in U.S. military service means Jewish immigrants were exposed to food from all over the world. This exposure broadened their tastes and choices in food, dulling the attraction to Jewish delis.

But there was something else contributing to the Jewish deli's decline: The rise of supermarkets, and the introduction of Jewish foods onto suburban shelves.

According to Merwin, even if Jewish food at the supermarket is not as fresh or as quality as at the deli, it provides a quick satisfaction to eat familiar food.

"In many ways, the supermarket replaced the deli as the place to be able to buy the kinds of food only the deli once offered," Merwin says. "The whole function of the deli serving as a gathering place really faded out. That, for me, is a sad part of Jewish history."

A customer walks out the front door on the last day of business for Gertel's Bake Shop, a kosher eatery, on June 22nd, 2007, in New York City.

A customer walks out the front door on the last day of business for Gertel's Bake Shop, a kosher eatery, on June 22nd, 2007, in New York City.

It's an end result familiar to other immigrant communities.

The number of Korean grocers in New York City has notably declined in recent years. In 1995, there were 2,500 Korean grocers in the city, according to Queens College sociology professor Pyong Gap Min. Now, he estimates only about 1,000 to 1,500 remain.

Min suggests that, in 10 years, few, if any, Korean grocers will remain thanks to the challenges corporate supermarkets and American assimilation pose.

As the later generations of Asian Americans grow in size—the Korean-American population has increased 41 percent since 2000, and South Asians are now the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S.—both communities continue to their steady integration into the mainstream. This moves Asian Americans away from traditional, enclave industries like the ethnic grocery, Le states in his research.

"It'll continue to happen," Merwin says. "As, for example, the Indian population continues to assimilate more and more into American society, as the food gets more and more assimilated, you're not going to need to have those ethnic grocery stores anymore."

This results in a narrow selection of ethnic food offerings, based on relatively myopic corporate decision-making.

"It represents a loss, when these more traditional elements of culture get subsumed under a very sanitized, American identity," Merwin says.

Some ethnic grocers don't seem to mind supermarkets' expansion into their gastronomic territory, echoing Le's statements on the importance of community in their business.

HK Nath, the owner of another South Asian grocery store in California, insists that, while supermarkets might carry some ingredients, they can never "have it all" the way grocers like him do.

"In the end, Desis will go to Desi stores. People will always have a craving for their own," Nath says. "And only we can provide our customers with a recipe for this: how to cook it, how to get the spices right. The supermarkets can never do that."

Nath smiles confidently. To prove his point, he grabs a handful of mustard leaves—a Desi staple—and proudly shakes them.