International markets serve communities with traditional products
San Diego Mexican Grocery in Dublin and Hatfield and Patel Brothers in Bensalem offer the Latin American and South Asian communities foods from home.
Hira Qureshi, Bucks County Courier Times
It’s a Tuesday evening and despite the rain, the entire South Asian community of Bensalem, it seems, is packed into the Patel Brothers store on 1915 Street Road. It’s a big store, so there’s plenty of space for customers to explore.
An older woman in a blue kurta (traditional loose shirt) and jeans surveys the tall shelves that almost touch the ceiling stocked with Shan spices. A husband and wife place an order for samosas at the bakery, while their two kids admire the colorful cakes displayed behind glass. And three teenagers add fresh produce to their basket as one of them checks off items on their grocery list.
This scene of customers is not unique to Patel Brothers but rather universal to international markets, chain or otherwise. And Bucks and Montgomery counties have a plethora of these international grocers, who bring out crowds of shoppers looking to find traditional products from Ghana to Turkey.
These unsung local and chain grocery stores provide international and immigrant communities a slice of their home countries, while offering a nuanced taste of their cultures to the wider public.
Vital part of the South Asian community
Sony Thomas comes to Patel Brothers once a week for vegetables and the variety of Indian foods sold at the store. But what keeps her coming back are sweets displayed on refrigerated shelves at the bakery.
“You see so many stuffs that reminds you of India and you just want to eat that, especially the stuff at the bakery,” Thomas said. “It’s crazy; I’ve been coming here more often now, and I have to watch my diet.”
The Bensalem resident believes it’s important to have stores like Patel Bros. because they offers specialty products regular grocers don’t have.
“If you go to BJ’s or Shop Rite, you get a certain stuff – like Indian rice – but it’s nowhere close to what we get over here,” Thomas said. “Here, you get all the spices because India is filled with the spices, so our curry meats need spices.”
For Rubi Shah, it’s the produce that makes the difference. She says Patel’s and other international markets offer GMO-free vegetables and fruits. Her family is from Pakistan, and Patel’s offers the traditional products her family needs for meals.
Shraddha and Jigar Patel are owners of the Patel Brothers location in Bensalem, which is part of a family-run national chain which also employs Jigar’s uncle. They opened their location in 2009, and moved to their new address three months ago. The couple opened the store to provide products for the large South Asian community in Bucks.
“There’s so many South Asian people here in the Bucks County and there was no such kind of big grocery store in this area — so yes, it’s very important so they can find the find the wide variety of stuff from India here,” Shraddha Patel said.
Serving the Latino families
Husband and wife Carlos Erazo and Teresa Tequianes-Tellez believe international markets like theirs serve as a resource for communities who need and want familiar items, especially for those who emigrated to the United States.
The couple took over as owners of San Diego Mexican Grocery store in Hatfield in May 2020 and then opened their second location in Dublin in September to provide services for the local Latin community.
“I’m from Mexico and my husband is from Honduras and we’ve been living in this town and we noticed we didn’t have stores where we could go,” Tequianes-Tellez said. “And the [Spanish-speaking] community has been increasing little by little, so everyone’s been asking we need a store. Because for us [the community], it’s important for us to have someone who speak our language.”
“We’ve been in this community a long time,” Erazo said. “Once we decided to jump into this venture of owning a business, we decided why not have one in Dublin?”
Their stores provide Latin American products such as fresh produce, packaged foods, spices, drinks, cleaning supplies and fresh baked goods like conchas (Mexican sweet bread) from a local bakery.
Erazo and Tequianes-Tellez say there is a yearly flow of people coming from Latin America, so for them, the store is an essential part of Bucks County.
“They miss their products and we have it,” Erazo said. “It’s like being back at home in a sense. That’s why we added the colors in here – make them feel at home and that just makes a difference. Cause everyone wants to be home when it comes down to it; they just have to come here to make a better living for their family. So when you have little bit of your home it means something. I think that’s why we’re so important to the community.”
The couple made sure to offer money transfers for customers who need to send funds back to their families domestically and internationally in a comfortable environment where they can communicate in their native language. They also have a mini pharmacy with national and international medicines.
For Wendy Lopez, San Diego Mexican Grocery store offers lower prices and better products than stores like Giant.
“It has a variety of stuff that other stores don’t have,” said Lopez, who makes the commute from Doylestown once a week for grocery items and medicine.
Keeping the culture alive while fighting racism
At the Levittown H Mart, the wildly popular Korean-American supermarket chain, customers like Autumn Malenfant come for specialty products such as quail eggs, aloe vera juice and seafood.
Malenfant visits every Saturday or Sunday, or whenever her parents have time to drop her off. She likes perusing the aisles, finding a variety of items she wouldn’t be able to find at other stores.
These stores not only provide unique products but also present an opportunity to help fight racism and prejudice, she said.
“I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people were avoiding Asian stores because of the stereotypical thing like calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ so I think it’s super important [to have these stores],” Malenfant said. “It’s really important to introduce people to other people’s foods so that they accept it and they’re not like, ‘Oh it’s some foreign thing’ – and it’s really not that much different from our [American] food.”
Onia Boukma lives in Feasterville and comes to the store three times a month for produce like lychees and Asian grocery products. H Mart means a lot to her, she said, because it connects her to her Chinese culture.
“As Asian people, we have that craving of Asian food, so in order for us to get the product we need stores like H Mart,” Boukma said.
Assi Plaza in North Wales connects Chris Suh to his Korean background, providing ingredients for his mom to make traditional foods like samgyeopsal (Korean pork belly) – one of Suh’s favorites – and barbecued short ribs.
The Ambler resident said it’s important that a country as diverse as America finds ways to encourage immigrants to preserve their unique cultures in their new home.
“Without stuff like this, I guess America wouldn’t be America,” Suh said.
Assi Plaza also has a wide selection of other international products which is what Rafa Al-Hada and her family come for once a month.
“Since I’m a Middle Easterner, I come here and I feel happy because I can buy things that I used to buy back home,” said Al-Hada, who is from Yemen. “When I cook, I feel like I can still get stuff and it makes me happy.”
Fulfilling a need close to home
Owner Affata Kaba began selling West African products from her home when she moved to Allentown, in Lehigh County, from New York because she saw a need for traditional products in a growing immigrant community.
After selling from her home for a few years, she decided to get a storefront and opened the Asta African Market in 2008. She stayed there for 14 years until her recent move to a bigger location on 189 Tilghman St.
Kaba loves that her store helps people in the community have easy access to products they might have to drive all the way to Philadelphia for otherwise.
“It’s good for the community because it helps support the African community around the area,” Kaba said. “This is very convenient for them, and I’m glad that I did that because I’m helping out a lot of people.”
The market offers items like fufu (a soft and doughy staple African food made of boiled cassava mixed with plantains or cocoyams), yams, Maggi spice mixes and cassava leaves, as well as clothes and beauty products.
Having these foods available is especially important for customers who emigrated to the U.S., says Kaba.
“Because the certain kind of food that we eat, there’s no way you’re going to get it from here; you have to get that from Africa,” Kaba said.
“Some people, they cannot eat anything else. They have to eat their own traditional foods. So I try my best to get it for them.”
For Levittown resident Murtaza Trabzon, who emigrated from Turkey, international stores keep his culture alive. He visits Euro Food Market in Levittown because he finds Turkish products like oils, cheeses, sujuk (sausage) and sunflower seeds, he said.
The market is near his home and convenient with “friendly” staff that keep him company while he shops, he explained. It’s particularly important for him because the market sells halal (Islamically permissible) meat.
Trabzon added that he loves Euro Food “because they are selling products of Turkey and I give importance to traditional things.”
Hira Qureshi covers food and drink for the Courier Post, Burlington County Times, Daily Journal, Bucks County Times and Intelligencer. She can be reached at HQureshi@gannettnj.com or 856-287-8106. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription.