Ethnic Markets

Immigrants to Vermont make sure they have choices for finding the foods of their home countries 

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

“Vermont is an extraordinarily welcoming place for refugees.” So says Judy Scott, coordinator of community services for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. 

Scott should know. Her 25-year-old organization has assisted more than 4,200 people resettle here since records were first kept in 1989. Scott lists 19 countries of origin for these new Vermonters, and cautions that these are just the ones they have records of. 

photoAfrica Market, North Street, Burlington

“What makes the biggest difference for refugees is how well they become integrated into the community,” says Scott. What makes Vermont so welcoming is that “we don’t end up with these enclaves of people from one place who don’t speak any language but their own, who therefore don’t speak to anyone but their own people.”

VRRP is a 501(c)3 organization, a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Washington, D.C. It works hard to ensure that integration, offering employment counseling, English classes, interpretation services and a strong volunteer program through which more than 200 community members and business partners help the families to become self-sufficient.

One sign of the arrival of these new Vermonters is the proliferation of small, ethnic grocery stores. Their products help not only the refugees, who have a hankering for the foods of their own countries, but also those of us who have come to appreciate those dishes. 

It’s also a sign of integration, says Scott. “People couldn’t work in stores like the ones you are visiting, because they don’t have enough English to do it.”

The owners of some of those stores agreed to tell us how things are going.

photoThai Phat, 100 North St.,

Andy Thai opened Thai Phat almost 10 years ago around the corner from its current location. He named his Asian market in memory of his grandfather.

Thai moved here from Vietnam with his family. He realized a store would help Asian people he knew who had to travel to Boston to pick up their favorite foods. “Also,” he says, “to help out as more American people get to know about Asian food.”

Thai’s food comes from everywhere, he says — “Vietnam, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Indonesia, Africa, all over.” He carries a wide variety, including fresh Asian vegetables.

His first source of products was Montreal. He would drive up, pick up his products and drive home. Eventually, though, he hit a snag at the border. “They won’t allow Asian vegetables to come in,” he says. A friend suggested he try Massachusetts.

Nowadays, he travels to Lowell, Mass., and buys from a wholesaler who brings product in from New York. “It’s better than Montreal,” he says.

Summer is a bit of a slow period, says Thai, because in summer, people travel to places like Boston and Montreal, where they can buy Asian food for less money.

Plans for expansion? If he finds a good spot, he says.

photoGlobal Market, 325 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington

Waell Murray runs this combination grocery store and restaurant in the former Vermont Transit bus barn. The store opened in 2002 as Halal Vermont, located in the back of the same building. A Bosnian native, Murray came to Vermont to be with the woman who founded the store, but who has since left the business.

Groceries are mainly Bosnian products “that satisfy the people of former Yugoslavia. I increased the Middle Eastern line by bringing certain things in based on what the people asked,” says Murray. “Saffron, for example. You could not find any Spanish saffron anywhere until I started carrying it regularly.”

He carries other Middle Eastern spices, too, such as curry powder, “nuts you won’t find anywhere else,” and black seeds, which the Somali refugees use “for fighting certain coughs and disease,” he says. “I’m the only halal food preparer in the state of Vermont,” he says, referring to food prescribed by the Quran as permissible according to Islamic law. He also carries fresh vegetables.

Murray shops in two places: Paterson, N.J., and Chelsea, Mass. He drives down each Monday in his van to make pickups. High gas prices have increased the cost of not only his trips, but also the food he buys.

Murray, who would like to add “serious catering” to his business before expanding, cautions anyone thinking of opening a business to pay attention to the licensing and code requirements. He offers to talk to anybody who might benefit from his experience, “because I want to see businesses succeed in this town.”

photoGagnon Asian Grocery, 1239 Williston Road, South Burlington

Kuljit Kaur is the proprietor of this Asian store that focuses on Indian foods. She opened the shop five years ago because of the growing Indian community. “We have a restaurant, India House,” she says. “Everyone was asking where they can buy the groceries.”

The store carries products such as Indian lentils, rices, spices and fresh vegetables, such as small eggplants and bitter melon. This is the place to go for tamarind paste. “We also have prepared meals,” says Kaur, “and a lot of ready-to-eat frozen foods. All the breads come in frozen. It’s more in demand.”

That demand is a big reason for a planned expansion, although she hasn’t yet found the right location.

She, too, lost a supplier because of high fuel prices, “so now, we rent a cargo van and go there and get the produce.”

Other Markets

There are more markets than the ones we visited, possibly some we didn’t find. Here are four more we weren’t able to reach, but suggest you try.

Karibu Market,
184 North St., Burlington

Springflower Market,
457 St. Paul St., Burlington

Africa Market,
North Street and N. Winooski, Burlington

Nhat Long Market
194 North Street, Burlington •

photoKaribu Market, North St., Burlington