The store blends in with the one-story, two-bedroom homes that look just like it. On a busy neighborhood street, it’s almost too easy to scan over the family-owned business’s only distinguishing factor: an electric-blue storefront sign. Tucked neatly within a midtown Omaha neighborhood rests Mediterranean and European Grocery.
The store doesn’t rely on glaring signs. Elaborate advertising schemes aren’t in its business plan. Impersonal and quick interactions aren’t what its owners aim for. The owners’ expertise and simple word-of-mouth marketing has kept customers coming back since the store’s opening in 2007.
Small-scale ethnic stores across the country, like Mediterranean and European Grocery, have turned to focusing on niche products to stay afloat, despite hurdles. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 91 percent of food sales came from supermarkets, while only 3.4 percent came from specialty food stores. Even gas station convenience stores beat out these small providers at 5.5 percent.
But ethnic grocery stores are much more than just another grocery shopping experience. Store owners say they provide authentic, cultural flavors to foodies and beginner chefs alike, despite the stiff competition posed by large supermarket chains.
Hilal Groceries — Des Moines, Iowa
Multiple heritages, including African and South Asian traditions, come together under one roof in Hilal Groceries. Owner Abdirizak Salah keeps up with his diverse patrons as a fluent Swahili, Somali, Arabic, and English speaker. All products carried in the store are halal, meaning they are permitted under Islamic dietary law.
Accessing these flavors didn’t come so easily for Salah and many others before Hilal Groceries opened in 2001. To find halal-specific products, he traveled to Minneapolis or Chicago. Establishing a home base in Des Moines brought Salah into contact with others searching for specialty foods.
“In Des Moines, we have a large community of immigrants. That way, we’re helpful for them,” Salah says. “They come here and find something they used back home for a long time — that way, everybody’s happy.”
Hilal carries dates from Tunisia, mango and guava juices from Egypt, and coarse or fine corn flours, a staple of Middle Eastern dishes. Salah strives to bring these familiar flavors to Hilal Groceries for his customers.
Salah also says he enjoys teaching new customers and the local community about this culture.
“We teach the neighborhood,” Salah says. “We interact with the community by teaching how we make traditional dishes from home.”
Ingebretsen’s — Minneapolis, Minnesota
Built on heritage, tradition, and a strong last name, Ingebretsen’s recognizes the important connection between family and a successful business. Steve Dahl, son of Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian co-founder Warren Dahl, started working in the meat market when he was 12 years old. Now, almost 50 years later, his son suits up in a white apron alongside him.
But this store is much more than a single family’s tradition. Ingebretsen’s attracts customers across generations who are interested in learning about their heritage. “There is such a revival of people trying to find their roots, which has brought a younger generation,” says Debbie Ingebretsen, the store’s catalog manager.
Dahl says his customers who picked up ingredients for their stinging nettle soup 60 or 70 years ago now bring their grandchildren to shop for that traditional Scandinavian taste. “I’m always joking with our younger customers, ‘You’re too young to be buying blood sausage,’” Dahl says. “And they say, ‘But my grandpa got me started on it. I didn’t know what it was then, but I like it now.’”
Graziano Bros. — Des Moines, Iowa
The store’s signature Italian sausage transformed it from a neighborhood grocery store into a little piece of Italy on the south side of Des Moines. “We make about 3,000 pounds of it a day, Monday through Friday,” says Frances Graziano, granddaughter of one of the store’s original owners. The robust smells of fresh Italian spices and minced garlic have been greeting customers at the door for 103 years.
In that time, Graziano Bros. has expanded its ventures to restaurants, supermarkets, and smaller vendors, and has brought its flavors to homes across the Midwest. Some of its popular products include homemade Romano cheese and seasoned green olives.
Mediterranean and European Grocery — Omaha, Nebraska
Reda Hamze’s search for business success took more trial and error than he anticipated. An emigrant from Lebanon, he opened and subsequently closed a store that sold sugar-free food products for individuals with diabetes. Additionally, Hamze faced zoning law hurdles in transitioning his property from a residential one to a business. But once Hamze gained his footing, he evolved his business plan into a neighborhood staple: Mediterranean and European Grocery. And his business plan is simple: He sticks to what he knows.
“I know my product line. That’s what I’m familiar with, so that’s what I sell,” Hamze says. “It gives you an edge to succeed. It doesn’t mean you are going to succeed — it just gives you a better opportunity.”
Providing products that large chain stores don’t, like fresh champagne grapes and persimmons, has given Hamze that edge. Rice used to make dolmades, a dish of stuffed grape leaves popular in the Middle East, is stacked in the middle of the store. Varieties of thyme used for Greek holiday dishes line the back wall. And fresh gyro meat lines the entire left wall.
While foodies searching the area for the freshest pita bread and hummus may wind up on Mediterranean and European Grocery’s doorstep, Hamze’s personal touches keep them coming back. Hamze says customers can expect to leave with free juice, some green almonds, or a slice of baklava on the house.
“If you treat them right, then they come back, and that’s how you stay in business,” Hamze says. “It’s a struggle — you have to do it every day. It’s not like you say, ‘OK, I met my sales target today, and now I’m done.’ You have to do it every day, and you have to be hungry every day.”
European Flavors — Windsor Heights, Iowa
Since 1996, European Flavors owner Alexander Litvak has built a selection of meats and cheeses that shoppers can’t find at Wal-Mart or Hy-Vee. “I try to get products that you can’t find anywhere else in Des Moines,” Litvak says. “If a chain gets it, I discontinue it in my store.”
Starting out wasn’t easy for Litvak and his wife, Svetlana. They opened the store intending to save people a trip to a large city like Chicago to get eastern European foods — but it took them almost three years to make a profit.
Only the cheeses and dry ingredients are imported. For meats, Litvak finds his inventory at regional specialty markets. Litvak hopes that his adherence to quality and variety keeps him successful for the future.