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Specialty food stores give Rochester 'abroad' offerings

Facing more competition, specialty food stores in Rochester are finding their markets.

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Eav Ngov, owner of the Asian Food Store, 1070, 7th St. N.W. John Molseed / Post Bulletin
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Having twice escaped Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia, Eav Ngov has learned not to focus on small stuff.

After 15 years of owning and operating a specialty grocery store, he has learned to think bigger.

Ngov and his family own the Asian Food Store at 1070 Seventh St. N.W. It’s the store’s third Rochester location since he opened it in 1996.

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Initially, he specialized in offering fare from his region of Asia. Customer requests from a growing and diversifying Asian population broadened his inventory and helped him grow his business.

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“I cannot just take care of a small group,” he said.

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Eav Ngov, owner of the Asian Food Store, 1070, 7th St. N.W.

The store inventory has grown to include foods from Korea, Japan and the Philippines, as well as a few offerings from as far west of Cambodia as East Africa.

Ngov said he knows he’s not the only one diversifying his inventory. Major grocery chains have expanded their inventories to the point where they offer ingredients for many Mexican and Asian dishes.

Ngov said that trend is a threat to smaller independent stores like his, but added he has an advantage.

“I have more choices and I have more knowledge,” he said.

Ngov said his customer base is getting bigger in part because people are becoming more curious and open minded about foods from other cultures.

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Experience with specialty food and personal attention to customers is something larger stores don’t offer, he said.

“When they come in, we’ll be able to show them what they’re looking for,” he said.

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El Super Gallo #1, 1831 24th St. N.W., owner Eugenio Perez, left, rings up a customer while his niece, Marilyn Perez, helps bag Nov. 25, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Ngov can describe flavors, recommend ingredients and provide some cooking tips.

“In a bigger store, they don’t have that intimacy,” he said. “When customers come in, I try to make them feel welcome.”

A visit to the store can be more than a trip to check things off a shopping list.

“You can connect with people through food,” Ngov said.

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Specialty markets with halal foods

At Ngov’s first location, 605 Sixth Ave. N.W., Mohamed Ossoble opened a Somali food store in early 2019. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, sales and customer volumes have steadily grown.

“Day by day, we’re doing better,” said Ahmel Fayhn, a manager there. “The only problem is customers complain about the parking.”

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An employees at El Super Gallo #1, 1831 24th St. N.W., weighs meat for a customer Nov. 25, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

The store offers custom cut and frozen halal meats for observant Mulsims. It’s one of the store’s specialties, he said.

“Number one,” Fayhn said, breaking into a smile.

Fayhn gives a brief tour of a freezer stacked with meats and explains how each of the foods has been prepared under the guidelines laid out in the Quran. Those guidelines determine what is halal, or permitted for observant Muslims to eat.

Fayhn adds the store isn't the only one in the city that offers halal food.

Anwar Haq opened International Spices grocery store in downtown Rochester in 1994.

After immigrating to New York from Pakistan, Haq moved to Rochester in 1992. He said he wanted to create a familiar space for visitors and new immigrant arrivals to Rochester.

“Something like what you would find in New York,” he said.

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Than Lee, owner of Lee Market, 1116 9th St. N.E., rings up a customer Nov. 24, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Since opening, he has expanded the store’s offerings in part to respond to the changing demographics of his customer base as waves of immigrants arrive in Rochester.

Expanding Latinx market

Creating a familiar place for some of Rochester’s Latinx community is one of the reasons Eugenio Perez took over ownership of El Super Gallo #1, 1831 24th St. N.W., in 2006.

“Even if they’re not home, they feel like they’re home here,” Perez said in Spanish through his niece, Marilyn Perez, who translated his answers to English.

“Here, they’re finding things they’re familiar with,” he said.

Like the other store owners, Perez said he has expanded his offerings as his customer base became more diverse. Most of the store’s inventory comes from Mexico, but he has added offerings from Peru and Colombia in recent months.

“He tries to please everyone,” Marilyn said.

The variety keeps customers coming back, Eugenio added.

“Once they come here, they find everything in one place instead of going to multiple places,” he said, adding the store offers more than just the items on the shelves.

The store has a small kitchen with a menu of Mexican food, a full service meat counter and the store offers international money transfer services as well.

“It’s four things in one,” Marilyn said.

Asian market at home in NE neighborhood

Lee Market, 1116 Ninth St. N.E., also offers Thai teas and coffee and a small sandwich menu.

Bins of green, orange and red produce, including dragon fruit and Korean mango, greet customers when they walk in the door. Like the other stores, that kind of specialty produce is key to keeping their customers happy, said Vibol Lee, brother of store founder Than Lee.

Getting them to think fresh when they walk in helps, he added.

“We want customers to get in and see the fruit and make them hungry,” Lee said.

The brothers are from Cambodia and opened the store in 2018.

In the back, stalks of whole cane sugar are stacked in a basket.

Lee said he thinks there’s plenty of room and a large enough demand for specialty Asian food to support multiple markets in town.

People in the surrounding neighborhood also frequent the store, Lee said.

Those customers aren’t reluctant to try something new when it’s close by, he added.

“It’s a necessity,” he said. “We all need food to eat.”

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John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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