The death — and rebirth — of the supermarket ethnic aisle

Segregating food by ethnicity has been vilified for years, but it has survived — and lately begun to thrive

David Chang, the American chef and restaurateur behind the Momofuku empire, wants the ethnic food aisle to die.

It’s out of date and doomed, he explained on a recent episode of his podcast The Dave Chang Show, because it puts “all the places in the world that are not White America” in one aisle.

“I have nothing but anger at it,” Chang said.

He urged supermarkets to mix it all up instead, putting sauces with sauces and spices with spices, regardless of where they came from. That format would fit better in the “hodgepodge” of modern cuisine, he said, where diners and home cooks know enough about food not to think of it in terms of ethnic or mainstream. “I’m not saying it’s straight racist, that’s not what I’m trying to say. But it is pretty close to it — because it’s values of how we ate years ago,” he said.

“I want to figure out how we change that.”

Chang is far from first to challenge the ethnic aisle or its values. Industry observers have foreseen its demise for several years and yet it remains, scattered around the grocery industry in different sizes, forms, and names —  though the most common in Canada is the international aisle.

Canada’s largest supermarket chain, Loblaw Companies Ltd., appears ready to side with Chang, and will phase out the ethnic aisle as it renovates its stores, mixing international products into other sections. But other major chains are significantly expanding their global aisles, in some cases creating a standalone store in neighbourhoods with diverse populations.

It appears the only consensus among grocery insiders is that the ethnic aisle, in its original form, will not survive. The rise of independent, immigrant-owned supermarket chains in the last decade have forced supermarkets to change their approach.

Nielsen said last year that so-called ethnic consumers are “an increasingly dominant consumer group,” making up 20 per cent of the population in 2018, and expected to nearly double by 2036. In a report, Nielsen urged retailers to figure out “who they are and how they shop.”

Chef David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku restaurant empire, says he has “nothing but anger” about the ethnic food aisle. Josh Haner/New York Times

They aren’t likely to shop the ethnic aisle, said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of the strategic design firm Shikatani Lacroix that consults on supermarket design. Specialty markets have more credibility with the communities they cater to, he said, so international aisles in mainstream supermarkets are “really [just] appealing to boomers who want a safe exploration of different types of global foods.”

According to Loblaw, that exploration is essentially complete. In a statement, the company said that while the original mission was to give shoppers a place to discover “international flavours,” many of those flavours are now “more mainstream.

“So as we renovate our stores, we are moving items from a dedicated international aisle to relevant sections in the grocery aisles,” Loblaw said.

One former Canadian grocery executive, who asked not to be named, described the international aisle as a failed experiment. When it rose to popularity in Canada in the 1990s, she said, the purpose was to serve local immigrant populations as well as affluent “food adventures.” Instead it let down both.

“It was notoriously dusty and confusing,” the executive said.

It was difficult to navigate eight or 10 different cuisines in a single section, jamming biscuits next to soy sauces and canned beans.

Ideally, you could customize the aisle based on the demographics of the neighbourhood. But it was hard to get approval to buy local ads or devote a section of the flyer focused on those ethnic products. And without an in-store expert on each cuisine, it was tough to know if they were getting the product mix right — the right kind of Polish biscuit or the right kind of Caribbean juice.

“Grocers are lazy. They’re lazy. And they want to do everything the same way, over and over,” the executive said. “They say, ‘I want to serve the food adventurers.’ And then, ‘I also want to serve the needs of any quote ethnic people who might be in this neighbourhood.’”

“And so I have a discretionary bunker in my frozen grocery and I have a discretionary eight feet (of aisle), so I might set that up with something. But that’s not really doing anything. It’s all about the dominance of Canadian food and Canadian brands. And that’s what our industry serves. That’s why I say it’s lazy.”

But as a new kind of independent ethnic grocer started to pull more and more customers away in the past decade or so, supermarkets have started to adapt. Each wave of immigration to North America has seen a set of grocers pop up to serve their specific needs, University of Toronto history professor Donna Gabaccia said.

The difference with the modern iteration of ethnic grocers, such as the T&T chain, is they’re after your full grocery budget. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

“They have knowledge that the mainstream grocery stores simply don’t have,” Gabaccia, who specializes in international migration and food studies, said.

The difference with the modern iteration of ethnic grocers is they’re after your full grocery budget. The Lebanese grocer Marché Adonis and East Asian grocer T&T, like other ethnic grocers, are using the supermarket format, trying to be a one-stop shop by offering specialty products as well as produce, meat and staples.

T&T and Adonis both say their customers aren’t just new immigrants any more. T&T, for instance, refers to the growing segment of non-Asian customers as “Asian cuisine enthusiasts.”

At mainstream grocers, however, the idea of an international aisle is liable to alienate minority customers, Gabaccia suggested. Asked who’s likely to shop in the ethic section, she said, “I don’t think it’s the recently arrived immigrant who’s going to feel stigmatized by finding it segregated off.”

The major chains have responded to the specialty supermarket threat by making acquisitions.

In 2009, Loblaw acquired T&T Supermarket for $225 million, with Loblaw’s then-president Allan Leighton proclaiming that “the ethnic market opportunity in Canada is vast.” In 2011, Metro Inc. agreed to a deal that eventually saw the chain acquire Adonis and its manufacturing business for $382.6 million. Loblaw followed with its own acquisition of a Middle Eastern grocer, Arz Fine Foods, in 2014.

“The regular supermarket, it’s become very flat,” said Jamil Cheaib, who founded Adonis with his brother and a friend in 1978, starting with one store in Montreal. When Cheaib immigrated from Lebanon in the mid-’70s, he couldn’t find tahini. Now tahini is ubiquitous and Adonis’s growing stable of 13 stores attracts almost as many non-immigrants as it does newcomers from the Middle East.

“The market is still growing. I don’t think it’s going to stop here,” Cheaib, who left Adonis last year after Metro took ownership of the chain, said. “You need a big guy like Metro to grow it fast. That’s why we decided to sell it.”

Owning an ethnic supermarket means major chains are no longer stuck with a standard store in a culturally diverse neighbourhood. They can parachute a specialized store brand into the real estate instead.

“T&T runs fairly independently from the mothership of Loblaw,” chief executive officer Tina Lee said. “The one thing we collaborate very closely on is real estate and site selection. If the Loblaw real estate team goes in there and says, ‘Hey, this demographic seems to suit more a T&T model,’ then of course we’re going to put our best horse in the race.”

Loblaw also sells T&T’s private label products in more than 1,000 stores across the chain.

Jamil Cheaib, one of three founders of Marché Adonis, a Quebec Middle Eastern grocery chain, and Eric R. La Flèche, CEO of Metro Inc, in 2011. Last year, Metro bought the Adonis chain. The Canadian Press/Metro Inc.

“So the Chinese Canadian who’s living in Halifax can go to the local Superstore and buy a T&T teriyaki sauce,” she said. “They don’t really care if it’s in the ethnic aisle or the sauce aisle.”

Despite the disruption supermarket chains like hers have wrought on the Canadian grocery industry, Lee was skeptical of the notion that the ethnic aisle deserves to be phased out.

“I think the jury’s still out on whether that is even the right move,” she said.

In some regions around the country, she said, with few Chinese residents and fewer ethnic grocers, “the one Chinese Canadian that does live there, they might actually complain to the store if their products were spread out around every aisle and you asked them to walk 50,000 square feet for the 10 items that they want.”

Empire Company Ltd., the Sobeys parent company, would seem to agree. In its discount division, value banners like FreshCo are expanding their international sections rather than dismantling them. In 20 years, the section has gone from 50 suppliers to more than 350, the chain said.

“The influx of immigration in the last many years forced us to revisit how we deploy our assortment,” Mohamed Ibrahim, vice-president of merchandising for Empire’s discount unit, said. “The international section, in our business, is actually evolving … It’s growing due to the demands of our diverse customer base.”

As a low-cost grocer, he said, it makes sense to focus on international products. “Establishing a family (in a new country) takes some compromise, so international customers tend to look for value and for discounts,” he said.

FreshCo stores are flexible in how they sell global food brands. In more rural areas, where there is a more homogenous consumer base, they mix global brands with domestic products, since it’s not worth the investment to create an separate aisle. But in more diverse urban areas, international food is usually segregated in standalone sections, Ibrahim said.

The reason for that, according to Empire, is to provide “an easy shopping experience.”

The company doubled down on its segregation strategy in 2015. Noticing a major South Asian presence in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ont., the company created a new FreshCo format, called Chalo FreshCo. Ibrahim went on three tours of grocery stores around India to help develop the concept. Empire now runs four Chalo FreshCos around Brampton and two in Richmond, B.C.

The Chalo stores would be a good place to look for produce like jackfruit, humungous by fruit standards, and covered in pointy bumps. It’s difficult to find in mainstream grocery stores, but more common in Asian specialty markets.

“I don’t know if you read the vegan blogs,” said Jo Sharma, associate professor of history and food studies at the University of Toronto. “They have now discovered … jackfruit is a very delicious meat substitute.”

“I grew up in South Asia. We knew that all along.”

Sharma was in Fairbanks, Alaska recently, at a Safeway store.

“Not only did you have the big jackfruit — which frankly you need a very large family to consume,” she said. “But you have … cut quarters or halves.”

It’s part of what Sharma sees as a levelling of barriers, pushed along by worldwide food trends, changing the product mixes in mainstream markets, in places like Fairbanks and Brampton, making the line between ethnic and regular supermarket harder and harder to see.

“It’s completely breaking apart.”

Source: Originally posted at the Financial Post August 2, 2019.