LOS ANGELES — Consumers can find a variety of ethnic foods side by side in the produce aisle of just about any area supermarket, and many of those items can also be found among the product lines of Southern California produce shippers, said Alan Pollack, general manager for Coosemans L.A. Inc., on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.
About half of the independent stores and small retail and restaurant chains that buy from Cal-O Vegetable Exchange in Los Angeles are ethnic buyers, owner Tom Kunisaki said. That’s why, besides the traditional lettuce, cabbage, celery and spinach, Kunisaki sells banana leaves, baby bok choy and daikon.
Vietnamese and Cambodian consumers, he explains, wrap meat, such as pork, in banana leaves and cook it over coals. The leaves hold in the moisture.
Mainstream supermarket chains compete with mom-and-pop ethnic stores by allowing local managers to merchandise their stores to appeal directly to their shoppers, said Bill Vogel, president of Tavilla Sales Co., Los Angeles.
A store in East L.A., for example, might have a large display of red mangoes, while a sister store in Monterey Park might focus on yellow mangoes.
Many ethnic specialty shippers have incorporated American vegetables into their programs, and vice versa, said Paul Vogel, managing member of QSI LLC.
“We are an American produce company that is consolidating ethnic items into our program, acting as a bridge between mainstream markets and the ethnic communities,” he said.
There is a niche for companies like QSI, he said.
Large Asian vegetable growers have their own contacts with major retail and foodservice accounts, he said.
But there’s a secondary market they can’t effectively service directly, and that’s where QSI comes in.
QSI offers customers a diverse, year-round product with a level of professionalism and service they can’t find in their local marketplaces, Vogel said.
“We support and facilitate the existing programs of our preferred vendor partners by offering them access to our distribution network that complements their objectives,” he said.
Items that are available only in a few specialized stores in some regions of the country are everyday offerings at most Los Angeles area stores, and there’s a lot of ethnic overlap.
“Everybody’s using Persian cucumbers,” Pollack said.
He describes them as a cross between a hothouse cucumber and a Japanese cucumber.
“It’s a very sweet, seedless, wonderful item,” he said.
A local hamburger shop offers Persian cucumbers as a side dish, he added.
QSI focuses on the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Hispanic communities by hiring salesmen with backgrounds in ethnic produce who “act as a bridge between the culture to effectively facilitate growth and expand the marketplace,” Paul Vogel said.
Thanks to the popularity of mangoes among Middle Eastern and Asian consumers, Bill Vogel has seen growth in sales of the yellow ataulfo variety, not just the traditional red mangoes such as tommy atkins and kent.
When Pollack was growing up in the Pico Boulevard area of Los Angeles, there were a couple of major supermarkets, a Jewish market and a bakery, he said.
Today, there also are more than a dozen kosher stands with produce, dried nuts and fruit and items such as Persian cucumbers that are exposing people of various ethnicities to tastes they never have experienced before, he said.
“When you go there,” he said, “you kind of want to try them.”