April 19, 2024

On a busy Sunday at Compare Foods supermarket in Durham, North Carolina, you’ll find colorful peppers in the produce section, a barber shop where Angélica Díaz cuts hair, a parking lot where Sandra Sosa sells plants and customers lining up at the registers.

Iván Almonte has been in the US for almost 25 years years, but he still takes photos of the perfect produce – bouquets of epazote, mountains of chiles and perfectly ripe tunas from the prickly pear cactus – in his favorite Durham, North Carolina, grocery store.

The 45-year-old remembers when those items were hard to find in this bustling New South city, when he first arrived in 1999 from California after emigrating from Michoacán, Mexico.

“It used to be such a challenge when I first came to North Carolina,” Almonte said. “Every Friday or Saturday, we would have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to a carnicería in Burlington or Greensboro to get our ingredients. This went on for maybe 10 or 15 years before we started to see grocery stores that serve our communities. Compare Foods changed everything for us.”

He was referring to the grocery store that serves as a community hub for many newly arrived immigrants to the US south. The expansion of this New York City-based chain into smaller markets across the region signals the changing demographics of the south-east, which once had relatively low numbers of foreign-born residents. But that started changing in the 1990s, when North Carolina, specifically, led the nation in the growth of its Latino population; between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, that demographic jumped almost 400%. And according to Census Bureau projections, more than one in four Americans will be Latino by 2060, with Latino buying power having tripled.

An employee at Compare Foods supermarket pushes a line of grocery carts in the supermarket parking lot.

This shift – in which many immigrants were recruited by agricultural operations or otherwise left traditional destinations in the west and south-west for other points in the sun belt – inspired Compare Foods and its parent company, Aurora Grocery Group, to similarly relocate southward from New York.

A family business, Compare Foods started after Eligio Peña came to New York City from the Dominican Republic in 1970. A bodega job eventually led him to purchase his own corner store with his brothers, effectively serving as the family’s entry point into the business. In 1989, Eligio’s brother, Manuel, opened the first Compare Foods in Freeport, New York.

The chain now has dozens of locations across the east coast and the south-east, many of which are run by family members – descendants of Eligio, Manuel and their 13 siblings who also helped launch the business. North Carolina’s first Compare Foods opened in Zebulon, a small town outside Raleigh, in 2003. In the years since, the state has become central to the grocery store’s operations.

Griselda Jimenez arranges a tray of breads on one of the shelves at La Poblanita bakery inside the Compare Foods supermarket. Jars of huitlacoche (corn truffle), an ingredient in traditional Mexican food, at Compare Foods supermarket.

Omar Jorge Peña, the CEO of Aurora Grocery Group’s Compare Foods business in North Carolina, said there were multiple reasons for the company’s moves in the south. First, the surging Latino population ensured a large pool of potential customers. Then, the departure of grocery retailers like Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo opened up available real-estate locations. And North Carolina particularly is in a prime location, close to priority future markets as the company plans to expand “northwards towards Washington DC, southwards towards Atlanta, or westward towards Nashville”.

That it’s taken a few decades for a grocery chain like Compare Foods to find its foothold in the south isn’t entirely a surprise. In her book Making the Latino South: A History of Racial Formation, Dr Cecilia Márquez, Duke University assistant professor, traces the growth of Latino populations in places like North Carolina and Georgia.

“On the one hand, we’ve been in the south for decades,” Márquez said. “On the other, if you think about it historically, it’s only been a relatively short amount of time. And it takes a long time to build infrastructure for communities.”

Between 2010 and 2022, North Carolina saw another 45% growth in the state’s Latino population, according to Carolina Demography, the applied demography unit of the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. The organization’s executive director, Nathan Dollar, said understanding demographic change is essential so that communities are best served and that demographic change is related to “just about everything” – including grocery stores.

José Luis Alberto, a member of the music band La Poblanera, inspects a tortilla press, in one of the aisles of the Compare Foods supermarket.

What sets Compare Foods apart from competitors large and small is that its selection is tied to the tastes – and composition – of the places where the stores are located. Depending on where you are shopping – whether it’s in Baltimore or one of its Charlotte locations – that location might cater more to Caribbean communities or to those from Central America. Omar Jorge Peña says this is by design because the chain is structured to respond to local communities. Each store is individually owned and operated, usually by a member of the Peña family, though there are also independent operators trained in Compare Foods’ systems.

“We can respond to changing demographics much more quickly than our competitors because we’re not being dictated from the corporate office down,” the CEO said. “When the store owner or manager realizes that the demographics in the store neighborhood have changed from Ecuadorian to Honduran, they can make the decision to update the merchandising and product selection in that store to match those changes. It’s part of the beauty of our system that we can adapt quickly to what’s happening around us.”

Piñatas depicting cartoon figures and animals are another product the supermarket offers its customers. Diana Sauceda shows a gold necklace to a customer buying gifts for a quinceañera at Joyería el Tesoro, a jewelry store inside the Compare Foods supermarket.

North Carolina isn’t the only state where you can track Latino migration through the proliferation of markets that serve newly arrived immigrants. In the 1990s, California saw a boom of Mexican markets like Northgate González, due to one of the largest arrivals of migrants to the US. Immigrants from the Korean peninsula represent the 10th largest immigrant population in the United States, and the origin story and evolution of the beloved Korean-American grocery store chain H Mart is broadly similar to that of Compare’s. The store’s founder, Il Yeon Kwon, left South Korea in the late 1970s and opened the first H Mart in Queens, New York, in 1982.

So-called “ethnic markets” that primarily offer foreign products are estimated to be worth $46.1bn and they are a growing percentage of the US grocery industry. But it’s unclear if small, immigrant-run tiendas and carnicerías are counted as part of this larger market landscape. Even in deeply rural areas across the south, before the advent of larger supermarkets like Compare, these small businesses have offered a place to find familiar ingredients and for newly arrived immigrants to send remittances to family back home.

The Guatemalan cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez recalls what it was like to live in North Carolina before “the new southern-Latino movement”. Gutierrez coined the term in her 2011 cookbook The New Southern-Latino Table. Back in 1985 when she first moved to the south, Gutierrez said she could only find cilantro in Asian stores sold as “Chinese parsley”, and she had to special-order black beans. She made do with substituting similar ingredients. Gutierrez transformed grits into masa for tamales.

Customers wait their turn to buy prepared food to-go. Dishes include staples from a variety of Latin American countries.

Now, Gutierrez says she can go to Compare Foods and find products from Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and just about every other Latin American country. The ingredients are easy to find because the grocery store’s aisles are often broken down according to country, speaking to Latino immigration that’s not just larger but increasingly more diverse.

“Before Compare was here, little mom-and-pop tiendas owned by Mexican and Central American families helped feed us,” Gutierrez said. “Now that Compare is here, we can find food from all over Latin America. It’s a phenomenal way to shop, and the south is a wonderful place to be right now” due to culinary cross-pollination.

In the 1990s, when Gutierrez joined the Cary News to pen a weekly southern food column, making her the first Latin American food columnist in the country, she quickly realized that the southern-Latino crossover happening in her home kitchen was occurring region wide. Readers wrote in to ask about chipotle mayonnaise and a friend’s “southern dinner” included potato salad, deviled eggs and a roasted cabrito served with tostones.

Yadira Martínez, originally from Honduras, prepares baleadas, a traditional Honduran food, at a stand she has set up with her family in the Compare Foods supermarket parking lot.

This is why when she wrote The New Southern Latino Table, she didn’t focus on a state like Texas. When immigration to North Carolina rose in the 1990s, it wasn’t just immigrants from Mexico who settled in the area; it was Central American laborers, refugees from Venezuela and Cuba and Colombian students.

Gutierrez added: “It really is something incredible to live during a period of time in a particular place where you can actually see a movement being born, being adopted and being accepted to such a point that entire grocery stores and entire food industries are coming out of it. In our modern days, I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world outside of the south where we have been able to see it from the moment it was born and to see how it’s growing and how it’s being transformed.”

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