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Alaskan Grocers Find (Un)Surprising Key to Success

In the Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, food markets learn the value of catering to their diverse residents.

When it comes to America’s most diverse cities, chances are few Americans will think of Anchorage. “However, Mountain View has certainly been the most diverse neighborhood in the United States for the past three decades,” explains Dr. Chad Farrell, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Alaska, who has closely studied the diversity evolution of Anchorage. “Anchorage is one of those rare U.S. cities that has both a sizable Indigenous and immigrant population.”

What makes Alaska’s Mountain View neighborhood so diverse is it carries many ethnicities: White, Black, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Asian, and Latino. Long before Europeans arrived on the scene, the Native Dena’ina Athabascans lived in and owned the traditional homeland of what is now known as Anchorage. The Upper Cook Inlet region, which extends 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska into Anchorage, is rich in fish and wildlife. Their communities and food systems thrived on fishing and hunting. The Dena’ina Athabascan people are one of Alaska´s richly diverse Indigenous populations, the others being the Native people of Knik Arm and the K’enaht’ana communities. The 2010 census revealed that 23,130 members of the Native American community made up Anchorage’s population, meaning one in every 13 residents in Anchorage is of Native descent. For prospective residents and immigrant communities, the magnets luring to Alaska are its oil, military bases, and fish processing.

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“Alaska is filled with foodies,” declares Joseph Clark, the general manager of the Korean specialty store, New Central Market, in Anchorage. “Our customers are diverse, but all enjoy new tastes. Who says you can’t sprinkle Indian masala on popcorn? Who would say ‘no’ to a hot bowl of Udon or Ramen after shoveling snow all morning?”

Whether shipped in or grown locally, the key to success is to provide fresh restaurant-quality foods that cater to a vast array of cultures.

When Clark and his wife opened the New Central Market back in 2001, wholesalers initially refused to do business with them due to the poor supply connections to Alaska. Specialty foods shipped to Alaska can travel for over 3,000 miles, meaning traders like Clark sometimes palletize orders in tall and heavy arrangements, lumping half pallets of Indian groceries and a half pallet of Japanese groceries to save on trailer costs. In 2001, the New Central Market had put all its eggs in one basket by starting as a Korean-focused store. This proved a recipe for failure when in 2006, the New Central Market almost went bankrupt.

 

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“The future growth we needed came from realizing that other Asian foods—such as Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian Pakistani, and South Pacific Island cuisine—also need representation,” explains Clark. Because of increased diversity in their food offerings, New Central Market’s turnaround from near bankruptcy to profit proved the importance of diversifying their food offerings.

For David Guzman, who operates the Mexico Lindo Mini Market in Anchorage, kids will scream for bubble gum-flavored Inca Colas, Conchas, Puerquito (a special type of guava), and ask why various candies have Spanish symbols. Guzman´s store might have the word ´Mexico´ inserted into its emblem, but the outlet offers longaniza, cheese, and tamales from all over Latin America, including countries like El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Colombia, and Puerto Rico.

“From the start, we knew we had to source authentic Latin American foods and re-invent the dishes immigrants left behind,” explains Guzman. “Cater for all nationalities, we say. If you sell only Mexican Enmolada corn tortilla and ignore a bit of Honduras Pastelitos De Carne meat pie, you´re losing shoppers and loyalty.”


The philosophies of both the Lindo Mini Market and New Central Market mirror the fabric of Anchorage’s diverse neighborhoods, which increasingly cater to its multi-cultural residents with shops like the Salam Halal Market, Eastern European Store and Deli, Manila Bake/Stop N Shop, and more.

“We don’t sell many items regularly found in American grocery stores,” explains Clark. “We sell items such as beef and pork, but we present it in specialized cuts and forms not regularly found in grocery stores, like beef kneecaps and large intestines. We sell tofu in all the various textures along with numerous types of fresh kimchi made in-house.” Whether shipped in or grown locally, the key to both Clark and Guzman’s success is to provide fresh restaurant-quality foods that cater to a vast array of cultures, whether it is Thai basil rice or locally grown Mung bean sprouts.

Despite finding communities of Indigenous, Asian Americans, African or Hispanic people in even the most remote Alaska locations, the state is far from a utopia of diversity. “Anchorage is still a white majority,” explains Dr. Farell. “This may sound counterintuitive, but Anchorage is a racially segregated city with pockets of very high diversity. Mountain View neighborhood is one of those pockets.” The lively spirit of traditional food stores, like Lindo Mini Mexico Market and New Central Market, is a testament to Anchorage´s growing diversity and the importance of recognizing the needs—and flavor profiles—of its multinational residents.

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