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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org