To millions of shoppers, the supermarket is just a place to stock up on produce and pantry staples to keep the family fed. But to others, especially children of immigrants who may already feel pushed to the margins of the American mainstream, the supermarket can be just another place to experience the sting of their outsider status.
The sting occurs whenever they walk down the “ethnic” food aisle, the section of the supermarket that, to some, plays out like a remnant of the Jim Crow era, when laws established separate facilities for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. Sometimes known as the “international” food aisle, or even “Asian” and “Latino” aisles, these rows can come across to the shoppers they seemingly target as de facto segregation, another kind of “separate but equal” policy that marginalized African Americans for generations.
“If you go to the ethnic food aisle, that is sort of the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America,” David Chang, the man at the helm of the Momofuku empire, said on his podcast this summer. “It is something that’s got to go.”
In a telephone interview, Chang says there is an “invisible ceiling” on some supermarket items: Italian products that were once marginalized, such as olive oils and vinegars, are now routinely integrated into grocery store aisles, while Chinese, Japanese and Latino foods remain stuck in their own sections. The ongoing segregation of these foods, Chang says, isn’t about acceptance among the mainstream. Asian and Latino cuisines have long been embraced by Americans of every stripe, he says. You can sometimes even see this acceptance play out in supermarkets: Instant ramen and tortilla soups may sit right next to boxes of chicken noodle and cream of chicken soups, those standards of mid-century America. Same for the produce section, where plantains and mangoes will be sold in the same area as apples and iceberg lettuce.
Yet in supermarkets there are still aisles dedicated to soy sauce, duck sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, coconut milk, rice crackers, stir-fry sauces, yum yum sauce, curry paste, corn flours, adobo seasoning, bagged tortillas, refried beans, salsas and hundreds of other products connected, sometimes tenuously, to Asian and Latin American countries.
“All the foods in the ethnic food aisle are already accepted. So why do we even have them?” Chang asks. The aisles, he adds, are an echo of “1950s America, which was not a particularly good place to be, especially if you were Asian.”
To Chang’s way of thinking, these aisles continue to exist because nobody wants to talk about them, which was certainly true about the publicists I contacted for this story. Representatives of Whole Foods Market, Giant Food, Kroger, Albertsons (which includes Safeway stores) and Harris Teeter either declined to comment or did not return multiple phone calls for comment.
Phil Lempert is not connected to any supermarket chain. He’s the founder of supermarketguru.com, an independent source of food retail trends and industry analysis. For years, he was also the food trends editor for NBC’s “Today” show. He knows a lot about how supermarkets operate, past and present.
Grocery stores began devoting shelf space to international products around the 1950s, Lempert says. The push came from independent distributors, known as rack jobbers, that specialized in foods then considered outside the American mainstream — Chinese, Jewish, Italian or of another origin — and were searching for places to sell them. Early on, rack jobbers would be responsible for their specific section of a store: They would stock the shelf, maintain its appearance and restock it as necessary.
“It was the beginning of the store within a store, but this was a shelf within a shelf,” Lempert says.
Not all international food aisles are the same, experts say. They vary dramatically depending on the supermarket’s location and the demographics of that neighborhood. Some aisles dedicated to Hispanic or Chinese products may not even be catering to shoppers from those cultures. The shelves packed with prepackaged stir-fry sauces and instant miso soups? They are not targeting cooks who know their way around a Chinese or Japanese kitchen. Ditto for those many jars of Old El Paso and Pace picante sauces. They are not meant for abuela’s homemade tacos. These and countless other items are intended for white shoppers who want to dabble in international cuisines. Lempert compares these kind of white-focused international aisles to the new Impossible Whopper at Burger King. The mock-meat hamburger is not designed for vegans, he says. It’s for flexitarians who want a break from meat.
From the beginning, however, the products from Goya Foods were intended for the Latin American market, says Joseph Perez, senior vice president of the Hispanic-owned company, which is based in New Jersey. Perez can attest to the racist underpinnings of the first “ethnic” food aisles at supermarkets. As cities began to swell with immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, major supermarkets started to take an interest in Goya products, which had mainly been relegated to bodegas and other small grocers, he says. But supermarket managers assigned Goya the shelves in the rear of the store, by the back exit or near the warehouse doors.
“They didn’t want the clientele in their stores,” Perez says. Or at least in the part of the store trafficked by white shoppers. “David Chang was not off the mark.”
Whatever their intentions, these international food aisles had an impact on Chang as he grew up in Northern Virginia. He remembers his parents shopping at two grocery stores — one that specialized in Korean foods, and the other a supermarket with “ethnic” food aisles — and the memories were imprinted on his brain at an early age. The two stores, the separate aisles dedicated to international foods, his food: They were a reminder to an impressionable Chang that he was different from white America.
“We were always going to be different,” Chang said he remembers thinking. “We were never going to be accepted.”
Chang’s take is by no means universal. Krishnendu Ray, a New York University associate professor of food studies and the author of “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” says he is not bothered by international food aisles. A first-generation immigrant from the Indian state of Odisha, Ray doesn’t find these aisles insulting, humiliating or even necessarily segregating. He mainly finds them intriguing. His interest, he acknowledges, is largely academic. He wants to see how the American mainstream packages and sells food designated as Indian or Mexican or some other international cuisine. But Ray says his perspective would probably be different if he, like Chang, were the child of immigrants. A child whose food was mocked by peers at school. A child who constantly tried to merge into the mainstream but encountered roadblocks.
“The way I react to it would be very different from a second-generation American, a child of an immigrant,” Ray says. “I think that David’s perspective is very attuned to the second-generation children of immigrants who have this sense of being identified, cornered, considered inferior.”
Those who own and operate grocery stores, or used to, say that international food aisles have nothing to do with segregation — and everything to do with sales and convenience.
Jay Rosengarten, co-founder of the Food Emporium chain, the first grocery stores to mix regular and specialty items on the same shelves, says that supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods operate more efficiently when they offer international products all in the same area. The rationale is simple, he notes: Customers don’t want to search all over the supermarket — a massive space that can hold upward of 42,000 items — just for the handful of ingredients they might need to prepare, for example, Mexican enchiladas. They can pick up the tortillas, the seasoning blend and the salsa all in the same aisle.
These aisles don’t have “anything to do with racism,” Rosengarten says. “It has everything to do with the way people buy food. That’s the way stores are organized.”
Plus, as Goya’s Perez points out, absorbing international foods into the larger supermarket ecosystem can hurt the sales of those products. A few years ago, when William Rodriguez was building a new Billy’s Market Place in Ridgewood, N.Y., he considered ditching the international food aisle and integrating the Latino, Chinese, Indian and other products into the standard supermarket shelves. But he was discouraged from doing so — by some of the very companies that supply these foods. In the past, supermarkets that attempted such integration saw their sales drop on international products, says Rodriguez, who is also president of the National Supermarket Association. Shoppers apparently buy more of the same foods when they are lumped together, which is good for both supermarket and supplier.
International aisles are “extremely profitable,” adds Perez. “It generates more dollars per food [product] by having it consolidated.”
But more to the point, Perez says, the battle for hearts and minds has already been won. Over the decades, supermarkets have expanded their stock of international foods. Items that, back in the 1960s and 1970s, occupied just a few shelves by the dock doors have multiplied many times over and now consume whole aisles. These foods generate foot traffic into supermarkets, which see the fringe benefit of sales in other departments. The increased visibility for these foods is a statement in itself, Perez says.
An aisle that, to David Chang, looks like an ugly remnant of segregation is, in fact, something else altogether, Perez says. It’s a destination.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Phil Lempert is food trends editor at NBC’s “Today.” He no longer works for the show.
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