Ethnic Groceries Anchor New Economy Neighborhoods

Most of us in the U.S. are Something-American: Italian-American, Mexican-American, African-American, Korean-American. We satisfy our American half with football and domestic beer, and our ethnic half flying flags on Cinco de Mayo or having a Guinness on St. Patty’s Day.

However, most of us have never left home for a land that smells, tastes and sounds entirely different than the one we’ve referenced our entire lives. We don’t know what it’s like to start over in a new country, or go to school as an eighth grader with the language comprehension of a 3-year-old.

But research suggests that any New Economy growth strategy should consider just that kind of experience, because immigrants are likely to be major drivers of entrepreneurial activity in cities like Lansing and East Lansing in the years and decades ahead.

According to a new report commissioned by CEOs for Cities, 90 percent of population growth in the U.S. between 2000 and 2050—about 130 million people—will be racial and ethnic minorities, mostly new immigrants.

That’s good news for those interested in the economic future of cities. "If you look at the statistics of job creation, one of the most productive cohorts of groups in the U.S. are first-generation Americans,” Soji Adelaja of the MSU Land Policy Institute told Capital Gains last fall.

Portal Stores

The CEOs for Cities report, “Strengthening Portal Neighborhoods,” says that the neighborhoods and communities where immigrants first congregate in a new city are vital to a community's future economic growth strategy.

In the Lansing area, ethnic groceries are often centers of such "portal" neighborhoods. They provide familiar foods, newspapers and other hallmarks of home for the city’s immigrant population.

There are more than 20 such stores in the area. Siva Reddy, owner of Swagath Foods in East Lansing, bought his Indian market from the markets’ founder in 2005.

Swagath Foods is small, but offers products that Indians can’t easily find anywhere else, including curry, cumin and seeds like poppy, coriander and sesame. Reddy also carries Indian specialties, such as Punjabi mix (similar to Chex-Mix), and small, quick-cooking lentils called moong dal.

Reddy, who moved from India to Michigan when he was in high school, also helps his customers connect with groups and people in the area. While he was being interviewed for this article, an Indian student popped by and gave Reddy fliers to hand out for an upcoming Indian event. Reddy posted the fliers near a poster advertising an Indian movie playing in nearby Novi.

Reddy also rents hundreds of Hindi-speaking movies to his customers, and gives his clients advice on where to get their taxes done.

“The Indian population is growing in America,” Reddy says. “People from many different cultures tend to live in clusters where people are like them.”

Hard Bread

Reddy’s shop fills a very specific need for a very specific audience: Indians. The owners of Roma—an Italian bakery and food store in Downtown Lansing—went into business to offer similar services for a different target audience.

“My father said, ‘We don’t have anything Italian here. There’s no bread,’” says Roma co-owner, Mena Castriciano.

The bread her father found in Lansing was soft all over, instead of hard on the outside and soft on the inside like Italian-made bread. To replicate the traditional texture, Castriciano’s father had to toast his American bread.

Castriciano and her family followed her father to Lansing when he immigrated from the Southern Italian region of Calabria in the 1960s, at a time when agricultural hardships forced many southern Italian farmers to move to America.

In 1969, Castriciano and her husband, a Sicilian baker named Sostine, opened Roma as an Italian-style bakery serving everything from tiramisu to traditional Italian breads.

In the last 40 years, Roma has grown substantially, expanding from a 1,000 square foot mom-and-pop shop to a 5,500 square foot bakery, deli and international store.

Roma features dozens of pastas, pastries, more than 80 different olives, vats of olive oil, Castriciano’s homemade pasta sauce, and spices. Non-Italian fans flock to Roma as well, seeking out the store’s freshly grated parmesan, which Castriciano considers a step up from what’s sold in American grocery stores.

“They bought the little stuff, the dust,” Castriciano says about American parmesan.

Homegrown Business

The array of ethnic stores in Lansing is broad and diverse.

The Jerusalem Bakery and Deli has survived by selling homemade pitas and hummus. The warehouse-sized Oriental Market in East Lansing continues to sell fish, fish bones, homemade egg rolls, yard-long beans and melons to its broad customer base.

Not only do such stores supply food that can’t be found at most big-box retail stores, they also give new immigrants a sense of place and community they might not find anywhere else.

By filling an ethnic niche while satisfying their own taste buds, business owners like the Castricianos and Reddy wedged their way into the American business world.

“This is basically how ethnic people get into business in America,” Reddy says.

Similarly, Andres Ruiz, owner of two La Frontera Mexican stores in Lansing, does more than sell avocados, fresh tortillas and homemade pico de gallo to his customers. He helps them find churches and send money home.

Ruiz’s shop is a link to the Mexican-American culture in Lansing. A cork board at the front of the store advertises Mexican radio shows, bilingual chiropractors and Mexican bands.

Ruiz describes his store, which he is also expanding, as a “Mexican convenience store,” but it’s also been discovered by Lansingites who have lived in the area for generations.

The same goes for Reddy and the Castricianos, who have built a customer base that expands outside of their Indian and Italian ethnic groups.

When Lansing residents from Spain discovered Roma, the Castricianos expanded their food selection to include Spanish figs. Eventually, Roma turned into an international market and now carries polish rugelach, Russian baklava, Middle Eastern spices and Lebanese canned goods.

Not only does Castriciano learn about other cultures, she marries them with her own. The Castricianos make punczkis, the popular Polish pastry, but fill them with Italian-inspired, ricotta-based filling.

“I love different people,” Castriciano says. “How else will I learn?”
Ivy Hughes is the development news editor for Capital Gains, and can be reached here

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Breads in the oven at Roma

Siva Reddy, owner of Swagath Foods in East Lansing

Oriental Market in East Lansing

Roma's co-owner Sostine Castriciano

Lentils at Swagath Foods

Roma's spaghetti sauces

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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