Ethnic grocery stores weather economic storm

Fangqiong Ling, senior in Engineering, shops at Far East Grocery Store in Champaign on Sunday. The store stocks food from China, Indonesia and Laos. Erica Magda

Fangqiong Ling, senior in Engineering, shops at Far East Grocery Store in Champaign on Sunday. The store stocks food from China, Indonesia and Laos. Erica Magda

By James VandeBerg

Quail eggs, instant jellyfish, octopus and big bird pork fu. Not your everyday shopping list items.

Many supermarkets have an ethnic food section, displaying various exotic wares from around the world. Although these aisles provide shoppers with a change of pace from the more mundane items in the rest of the store, there isn’t room for all the essentials. This is where more specialized ethnic grocery stores on campus step in.

One of these stores is Far East Grocery, 105 S. Fifth St., Champaign.

“People really love the fresh vegetables we have … most stores don’t have the selection we do,” said Cuong Bao Diep, the store’s owner. Vegetables, which sit in tubs and on shelves immediately inside the entrance, are clearly the focus of the store.

The store specializes in otherwise hard-to-find items, mainly from China, Indonesia, Laos and Thailand, said Christina Trau, assistant manager.

However, the recent economic slowdown has been affecting the store, Diep said.

Although many items in the store cannot be found elsewhere, Trau says business has still slowed down significantly in the last few months.

“We get the same amount of customers, but now they’re spending less,” she said. “They come in and spend maybe $25 instead of $50 like they would before.” Customers are buying a similar amount of food as before, but they are now buying cheaper items.

Diep and his wife, Trau, have owned the store for 21 years, during which they have built a very dedicated customer base. Most of these customers are students or faculty members at the University, and price is an important concern for them.

“I can’t make prices too high for students … we make sure to treat them very good,” Trau said.

Even though this is the worst economic downturn Trau said she has seen in her 21 years at the store, she is confident conditions will soon begin to improve.

“The economy will go up in the next year or two … things always get better eventually,” she said.

A few blocks away, at the corner of First Street and Springfield Avenue in Champaign, is Am-Ko Oriental Foods and Gifts, 101 E. Springfield Ave. Although the store was started in 1980 as a Korean grocery store, it has expanded its product offerings considerably.

The primary focus is still on Korean foods, said Soon K. Chung, the store’s co-owner, although it also carries products from China, Japan, Thailand, the Middle East, India, Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“We have unique food you can’t get anywhere else … a lot of people are curious and want to try Asian food, so they come here,” Chung said.

The store carries a variety of meats, including exotic fish and octopus. A vast selection of snacks, processed foods and liquor from several Asian nations are also available.

Business at Am-Ko has not been negatively impacted by the recession, Chung said.

“We’ve seen business go up in the last few months … we have good prices, and we’re very kind to our customers,” she said. “People don’t have to go to expensive restaurants, but they still have to eat, so they come here instead.”

Customers come from as far away as Danville, Decatur and Mattoon to get hard-to-find items at the store, Chung said. She believes the friendly environment at the store is what keeps customers coming back, and spending nearly 15 hours a day at the store makes Chung a familiar sight to shoppers.

However, Asian grocery stores do not have the specialty market cornered. El Charro Taqueria, located at 55 E. Green St. in Champaign, specializes in Mexican foods.

“Customer service and flavor of the food brings people in, along with things you can’t find anywhere else,” said Yasmin Salina, the store’s owner.

The store has a small grocery section, along with fresh meats and a restaurant counter. Salina said the store has seen a small slowdown in business in the last few months, the biggest she has seen in her 11 years at the store.

“We have dedicated customers, but many of them have shifted their purchases away from the restaurant side to the grocery section,” she said. “Food that’s already prepared is more expensive than what you make at home.”

Alex Perez, a clerk at the store, has noticed a similar trend. He said that many customers have been buying cheaper grocery items such as chips, soup, tortillas and cheese.

However, none of the specialty grocery owners are worried about the upcoming opening of the new County Market grocery store on Springfield Avenue.

“They won’t have the products we do,” Chung said. “People will still come to us.”