Northeast Times

Food, glorious food!

— Taste the world in North­east Philly, where culin­ary de­lights of­fer something for every­body.

Mar­cus Rieker, own­er of Rieker’s Prime Meats, 7999 Ox­ford Ave., Fox Chase. He is with two of his store’s spe­cialty saus­ages, Thuringer rost­brat­wurst and Ok­to­ber­fest weis­s­wurst, along with Ger­man hot, mild and sweet mus­tards. Weis­s­wurst, which means “white saus­age,” is the light­er of the two pic­tured. (Maria Pouch­nik­va)

Rose jam from Tur­key. Mango nec­tar from Ukraine. Ger­man cof­fee. Rus­si­an pan­cake mix. Coconut juice from Thai­l­and. Chocol­ates from Lithuania. Cher­ries in syr­up im­por­ted from Po­land. Bul­gari­an — or French — feta.

You don’t have to go far to buy the items on this in­ter­na­tion­al gro­cery list be­cause, hey, this is North­east Philly. You can bet your bur­gers that we’ve got just about everything here. You don’t even have to leave the North­east for pickled apples or quail eggs.

In the North­east, the in­flux of im­mig­rants from East­ern Europe as well as the Far East has cre­ated a ro­bust de­mand for fa­mil­i­ar products from their nat­ive lands. And once the stores ca­ter­ing to this de­mand are es­tab­lished, they of­ten at­tract new cus­tom­ers  from bey­ond their eth­nic base.

At one time, 90 per­cent of the cli­en­tele at Bell’s Mar­ket was Rus­si­an. Now, that ra­tio has shrunk to about 65 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Maria Kat­souradis, gen­er­al man­ager of the store at 8330 Bustleton Ave. in the Bell’s Corner Shop­ping Cen­ter.

Kat­souradis said she sees people with Por­tugese, His­pan­ic or Greek her­it­age shop­ping in the aisles of the mar­ket, now in its 17th year.

“They’re com­fort­able here,” she said.

Shaji Var­ghese, own­er of Roy­al Spice, 10185 Ver­ree Road, said 90 per­cent of his cus­tom­ers are In­di­an, but he is see­ing more Rus­si­an, Afric­an and Carib­bean cus­tom­ers.

Var­ghese, who has been in busi­ness for a dec­ade, sells al­most ex­clus­ively In­di­an products, with a small se­lec­tion of Afric­an food­stuffs. Be­sides a grow­ing dif­fer­ence in the eth­ni­cit­ies of the cus­tom­ers who buy those products, he sees pur­chases vary ac­cord­ing to age groups.

His young­er pat­rons tend to buy spices that are pre­mixed, while his older, more tra­di­tion­ally minded shop­pers like to buy sep­ar­ate in­gredi­ents and mix them on their own to spice up their dishes.

Busi­nesses set up to serve the Ukrain­i­an, Rus­si­an and In­di­an im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tions are more nu­mer­ous in the north­ern part of the North­east, said Kev­in Dow, CEO of the city’s Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices. East Asi­an busi­nesses are more com­mon in the lower North­east, he said.

FOR­EIGN FLA­VOR

Sev­enty-nine per­cent of busi­nesses along a five-mile stretch of Bustleton Av­en­ue between Borbe­ck Av­en­ue in Rhawn­hurst and By­berry Road in Somer­ton have for­eign-born own­ers, he said. Dow cited a 2010-11 city Com­merce De­part­ment sur­vey of the 209 busi­nesses along that stretch of road that found only 21 per­cent of the busi­ness own­ers were Amer­ic­an-born.

The for­eign-born own­ers hail from Ukraine, Rus­sia, Uzbek­istan, In­dia, China, Ar­menia, Mol­dova, Vi­et­nam, Geor­gia, Azerbaijan, Tur­key, Ir­an, Is­rael, Ger­many, Italy, Cam­bod­ia, Brazil, Lithuania and Korea as well as oth­er European and Asi­an coun­tries.

The per­cent­age is much high­er than ex­pec­ted. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. Census fig­ures, 10 per­cent of the na­tion’s im­mig­rants own busi­nesses, Dow said. But im­mig­rants are 30 per­cent more likely than nat­ive-born Amer­ic­ans to start their own en­ter­prises.

Dow said it is com­mon for own­ers who star­ted busi­nesses based on their own eth­nic back­grounds to look at the po­ten­tial of oth­er cus­tom­ers.

“They get es­tab­lished,” Dow said, “and they see the traffic com­ing through their com­mer­cial cor­ridors on Bustleton, Cottman and Castor av­en­ues so they’re now try­ing to at­tract a more di­verse cli­en­tele.”

To ac­com­plish that, they’re not just ad­vert­ising in eth­nic pub­lic­a­tions, he said. They’re ex­pand­ing in­to church news­let­ters and bul­let­ins put out by neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­ations.

And they’re get­ting no­ticed.

“Phil­adelphi­ans, es­pe­cially young Phil­adelphi­ans, are be­gin­ning to ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent foods, dif­fer­ent fla­vors,” said Dow. Right now, he said, new eth­nic foods are “in fla­vor.” 

WHAT YOU MIGHT KNOW

If you’re look­ing to try some dif­fer­ent tastes, you can eas­ily look for foods in two cat­egor­ies: what you might already know (or is sim­il­ar to what you know) and what you prob­ably don’t.

Let’s start with feta. That’s a sheep’s milk cheese in brine. Many mar­kets carry it, and if you’ve got­ten a Greek salad any­where, you’ve prob­ably tasted feta. But you might not know that the cheese isn’t just a Greek product. It’s made in sev­er­al coun­tries and has a vari­ety of tastes and tex­tures, said Kat­souradis.

Be­sides Greek feta, Bul­gari­an and Ro­mani­an and French fetas are among those that Bell’s car­ries. French feta is the smoothest, she said.

Ger­man saus­ages are also a fa­mil­i­ar food, but there are many kinds of saus­ages that are less well-known. Mar­cus Rieker, own­er of Rieker’s Prime Meats, doesn’t im­port his meats. He pre­pares them at his store on Ox­ford Av­en­ue in Fox Chase — with spices im­por­ted from Ger­many.

Do his cus­tom­ers ever ask him to sug­gest something dif­fer­ent?

“I hear that all day long,” Rieker said.

You’ve doubt­less heard of the clas­sics like brat­wurst and knock­wurst. But how about Thuringer rost­brat­wurst or Ok­to­ber­fest weis­s­wurst? Thuringer (don’t pro­nounce the “h”) rost­brat­wurst is a raw saus­age. Ok­to­ber­fest weis­s­wurst is a mild saus­age that tra­di­tion­ally is steamed, not fried or grilled, Rieker said.

He said cer­tain products seem to be pop­u­lar with dif­fer­ent cus­tom­er groups. Rus­si­ans like his heav­ily smoked ba­con and oth­er smoked meats. Sousse (Sulze in Ger­man), which is meat in as­pic that is sliced like a cold cut, is a big seller with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

At Bell’s, Kat­souradis said, whole rab­bits are pop­u­lar with Ar­ab, Greek and Chinese cus­tom­ers.

“Tea is a cul­tur­al must in every house­hold and cul­ture,” Kat­souradis said, ex­plain­ing the large vari­ety car­ried at Bell’s.

Var­ghese said Rus­si­an pat­rons come in­to his Ver­ree Road store look­ing for strong, rich teas.

If you go caf­feine-hunt­ing in some North­east stores, you might find cof­fee brands you’d eas­ily re­cog­nize as well as un­com­mon grounds from Tur­key and Ger­many, along with teas, loose or bagged from around the world.

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

The bub­bly soft drink Kvas likely is only fa­mil­i­ar to people whose her­it­age is Rus­si­an. It looks like cola or root beer, smells a little like spark­ling grape juice and tastes noth­ing like either. Kvas, which reads “KBAC” on its la­bels, is a fer­men­ted bar­ley drink. Some of the big­ger stores that carry it along with many oth­er products from East­ern Europe are Bell’s, Net Cost Mar­ket in the Leo Mall and the Pet­rovsky Mar­ket on the 9800 block of Bustleton Ave.

If a product is from Rus­sia, its la­bel is likely to be writ­ten in the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet. But the la­bels of many food­stuffs carry trans­la­tions in dif­fer­ent lan­guages as well as im­ages of the product.

For ex­ample, one Ukrain­i­an product that might be writ­ten as “My­el­ovayi” in Eng­lish let­ters has an Eng­lish trans­la­tion on its la­bel — Sponge cake with honey — and a draw­ing of the snack along with a nu­tri­tion facts stick­er in Eng­lish.

Var­ghese said he gets asked a lot of ques­tions about his goods.

First-timers want to know how the foods that in­terest them are pre­pared, he said.

“They make it and they come back for more,” Var­ghese said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his store.

Get­ting in­form­a­tion about un­fa­mil­i­ar products can be dif­fi­cult if there are lan­guage bar­ri­ers. 

Hav­ing store work­ers who can speak Eng­lish along with their nat­ive tongues is a plus for cus­tom­ers who only speak Eng­lish, but hav­ing a bi­lin­gual staff isn’t al­ways af­ford­able, said Sam Chueh, a busi­ness ser­vice man­ager for the Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices who works with en­tre­pren­eurs in the North­east, Chin­atown and South Philly.

Own­ers of small busi­nesses who are just start­ing out might not have the money to hire em­ploy­ees who speak Eng­lish.

Still, said Dow, the own­ers of busi­nesses in the North­east that want to ex­pand bey­ond their eth­nic cus­tom­er bases are re­cog­niz­ing that they have to have some­body on staff who speaks Eng­lish simply be­cause they’re get­ting more cus­tom­ers who speak only Eng­lish. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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