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Why do American grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle?

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Salsas and other items were seen in the international food aisle of a grocery store, in 2013, in Washington. These days, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns; sales of tortilla chips trump potato chips; and tacos and burritos have become so ubiquitously American, most people dont even consider them ethnic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Salsas and other items were seen in the international food aisle of a grocery store, in 2013, in Washington. These days, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns; sales of tortilla chips trump potato chips; and tacos and burritos have become so ubiquitously American, most people dont even consider them ethnic. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Chitra Agrawal, the founder of Brooklyn Delhi, has spent many hours thinking about where in the grocery store her Indian condiments might sell the best.

Positioning her premade sauces alongside pasta sauce, she imagined, might encourage spaghetti lovers to make Indian food. On the other hand, she could be setting her products up for removal from the aisle, as they probably wouldn’t sell as well as pasta sauce. Then there’s her mango chutney, which is essentially a fruit condiment. Would placing it among other jams and jellies make sense, or confuse shoppers?

The spot where her products have found the most success is the so-called ethnic or international aisle, the global smorgasbord that has long been a fixture of American groceries — wide-ranging, yet somehow detached from the rest of the store.

“Consumers are trained, if they want Indian products, to go to that aisle,” said Agrawal, 42. “Do I like the fact that that is the way it is? No.”

New York, where she runs her company out of her home, is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Yet even there, the ethnic aisle persists, and its composition often perplexes her. “I buy Finnish crackers. Why are they not in the ethnic aisle?” she said. “An Asian rice cracker would be in the ethnic aisle.”

Today, the section can seem like an anachronism — a cramming of countless cultures into a single small enclave, in a country where an estimated 40% of the population identifies as nonwhite, according to the Census Bureau, and where H Mart, a Korean American supermarket chain, has become one of the fastest-growing retailers by specializing in foods from around the world. Even the word “ethnic,” emblazoned on signs over many of these corridors, feels meaningless, as everyone has an ethnicity.

In 2019, Kroger, one of the world’s largest retailers, accelerated its effort to move products from the ethnic aisle into other parts of the store. Local retail chains, like Food Bazaar in the New York metropolitan area, have sections dedicated to specific countries, like Pakistan and Ecuador, rather than a single international section. Megastores like H Mart and online grocers like Weee! have turned the old supermarket model inside out by putting non-Western foods front and center.

But at many grocery stores, a wholesale elimination of the ethnic aisle may not be easy, or even all that popular.

To shoppers like Jolene Tolbert, a fitness instructor in York, Pennsylvania, who described herself as “your basic 55-year-old white lady,” the aisle is a “wonderland” for finding ingredients. “I think if these items were mixed in with everything else it would make shopping a lot more difficult,” she said.

Robert Ashley, 42, a stay-at-home father in Norman, Oklahoma, said he doesn’t love the quality or selection in his local grocer’s ethnic section, but it’s better than having to drive all the way to a Vietnamese market in Oklahoma City to get soy sauce.

Several food purveyors of color see the aisle as a necessary evil — a way to introduce their products to shoppers who may be unfamiliar with, say, Indian food — though a barrier to bigger success.

In some ways, the ethnic aisle sums up the predicament of its suppliers, many of whom approach store buyers without the money often needed to get their products on the shelf. Corporations like Pepsi and Nestle can afford to pay stores handsomely to ensure their products get prime placement on shelves and a presence in promotions. Some companies break out of the ethnic aisle only when they’re acquired by larger companies. Others, like Goya and Maruchan ramen, are broadly recognizable, encouraging placement in both ethnic and other sections.

Toyin Kolawole, whose company in the Chicago suburbs, Iya Foods, sells products made with African ingredients, said she tried to get her cassava flour into the flour aisle at a Midwestern retailer, but it was placed in the ethnic lane. “Then,” she added, “when some of the bigger companies who are not minorities launched cassava flour, they put them in the flour aisle.”

“I want an opportunity to compete,” said Kolawole, 43.

Cuong Pham, the founder and CEO of Red Boat, a Bay Area company, wants customers to use its fish sauce for pastas and vinaigrettes, not just in East Asian dishes. But because it is usually placed in the ethnic aisle, he said, it limits perceptions of the ingredient’s uses.

Pham said the aisle seems to exist more for those looking to find ingredients new to them than for the communities whose cuisines are represented there.

That aligns with the ethnic aisle’s original purpose: to serve returning World War II soldiers who had tasted foods from countries like Italy, Germany and Japan while abroad. But while many of the European foods eventually migrated out of the section, most of the foods from other parts remained. (Conversely, some grocery stores in countries like France and Colombia have “American” aisles, with products like peanut butter, mayonnaise, boxed cake mix and barbecue sauce.)

Errol Schweizer, who was the vice president of grocery at Whole Foods Market from 2009 to 2016, said the ethnic aisle is part of “a legacy of white supremacy and colonialism” built into the framework of the grocery business — starting with the low wages paid to hourly workers, who are often people of color, and the lack of diversity among store buyers.

He said he and other employees frequently talked about eliminating the ethnic aisle at Whole Foods; but they couldn’t persuade the company to make such a major overhaul.

That didn’t stop them from making sure every aisle — not just the ethnic one — included diverse flavors and ingredients, he added, or from improving the section, known as the “global flavors aisle,” by increasing the variety of countries represented and finding more purveyors of color.

A spokesperson for Whole Foods said, “The same brand may have some products grouped for meal building in our global flavors aisles and other products with salty snacks, cookies, or in our specialty department,” and added that the goals of the strategy are to “provide customers with ideas for using the product and to make it easy to find.”

As an adviser and board member for retailers and consumer packaged goods companies, Schweizer believes industrywide change will be slow. “There is more to it than what you see on the shelf — there is how the money works, how the distributors are set up, and how the retailers themselves think people are shopping.”

Kroger conducted a study at a Houston store in 2019 to see whether customers preferred non-European products in dedicated aisles or intermixed with other foods. Shoppers overwhelmingly favored incorporation. Today, Mexican Coca-Cola sits alongside domestic sodas, Maseca corn flour with the other flours.

But most Kroger stores still have ethnic sections. Dan De La Rosa, Kroger’s group vice president of fresh merchandising, said the company could eventually move away from them as the nation grows more diverse.

Large retailers Albertsons and Walmart are also integrating more non-Western products throughout their stores, but representatives for the two said that in some locations, customers still seek out certain items in the ethnic section.

In cities with large immigrant populations like New York, some local chains have reconfigured the conventional grocery-store layout to cater to their neighborhoods. On a recent Friday at the Trade Fair branch in Astoria, Queens, chicken feet and plantains greeted customers at the entrance. In the Food Bazaar store in Woodside, Queens, an expansive frozen section is dedicated to dumplings.

“We have never really adhered to” the ethnic aisle model “because we feel it is obsolete,” said Edward Suh, executive vice president of Food Bazaar’s parent company, Bogopa Enterprises.

Last year, Noramay Cadena and Shayna Harris started Supply Change Capital, a venture capital firm that funds food companies with multicultural founders. This month the partners started the New American Table, a coalition of investors and entrepreneurs of color that will meet regularly with store buyers and brokers to make the case for a more inclusive grocery business.

“Part of dismantling the ethnic aisle is engaging with the decision-makers and the gatekeepers on this huge economic opportunity they are missing out by continuing to have a Eurocentric supermarket,” Harris said.

There are plenty of examples they can point to. In January, Sprouts stores started selling various Mexican cookies from Siete Foods in the cookie aisle. They quickly became the bestselling cookies there, according to a July report from Spins, a data technology company.

Adnan Durrani, the founder of Saffron Road, said his premade sauces like Thai red curry and tikka masala sell significantly better when incorporated with all the other sauces. It helps, he added, that he has Americanized the names of some dishes: Aloo matar became Delhi potatoes. Dal makhani became Bombay lentils.

Yet that is precisely why some purveyors want their products to remain in the ethnic aisle: They don’t want to dilute the foods’ identity in the effort to sell to a wide audience.

Hansen Shieh, 36, who runs the noodle soup company One Culture Foods, said he knows his goods would probably sell better in the soup section, but he preferred to go with the ethnic aisle. “What I was willing to make that trade-off for was for a shopper who more intentionally had the desire to find something in that realm, that Asian product realm,” he said.

He doesn’t want his soups to become the next hummus — widely known but often divorced from its cultural background.

Redesigning a store without an ethnic aisle can introduce new challenges, as the employees of Providore Fine Foods in Portland, Oregon, found out last year. “Very quickly you start to see just how limiting the current conventions are,” said Patrick Leonard, a buyer and manager. It wasn’t clear, for instance, where ingredients like tamarind, preserved cabbage or pomegranate molasses might live.

“If you inter-shelve products based on the same conventional categories and get rid of the ethnic aisle,” he said, it may reduce these items to “a trendy sauce to top your lunch, and it takes away some of the actual cultural context of those products.”

The employees’ solution has been to put the same product in a few places, and include signs providing background on items and how they’re used.

That desire for more nuanced storytelling prompted sisters Kim and Vanessa Pham to start their Asian sauce kit company, Omsom, as an online business last year, rather than sell in grocery stores. They wanted to showcase their food on their terms, unconfined by the ethnic aisle. (They even posted a TikTok video denouncing the aisle. “We never felt celebrated or seen by it,” Kim Pham said.)

The company sold half a million sauces in a little over a year. Yet the Phams don’t believe that Omsom’s products can become American pantry staples until they’re more widely sold in stores. They recently started meeting with store buyers, hopeful that their track record will give them some say about the placement of their items.

Still, they said, there’s a real possibility that buyers will want them in the ethnic aisle. And reluctantly, the sisters agreed: They’ll just have to go with it.

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