International markets offer flavor of home

When the owners of Katy Grocers, an Indian and Pakistani food market, opened on South Mason Road five years ago, there were only two other Indo-Pak markets in the Katy area. Now there are five.



People may think of the area as a somewhat homogeneous population—and maybe it once was—but not anymore, said Haseeb Thara, supervisor at Katy Grocers and kin to the owner and three business partners.



"It was like that maybe 10 years ago," he said. "In the last five years I've seen a big change. In the last year I've seen the biggest change."



A lot of people are moving into the area, especially Indians and Pakistanis, he said.



That trend has yet to be reflected in demographic numbers, according to demographers, but culturally specific grocery stores could be a leading indicator of a growing population.



In a two-mile stretch near Katy Grocers on South Mason Road, there are grocery stores dedicated to regions in the world that are continents apart.



A few doors down from Katy Grocers is Cedars Mediterranean Grill and Market. Another Mediterranean grocer, called Alsafa, is located a mile north. That store shares a parking lot with Pinoy Grocery, a Filipino food market, and is just across the road from African Intl. Market, which largely sells popular Nigerian and Ghanian food. There are also the much larger and more prevalent Latino food markets, such as Las Tarascas, also on South Mason Road, that provide hundreds of products to a comparatively large Hispanic population.



Community hub



Thara, whose family moved to the U.S. 26 years ago, seems to be in a particularly good position to gauge the changes in the Indo-Pak community. Markets, such as the one he supervises, are not only places to purchase traditional foods but also act as a hub for information about the community.



A customer leaning against the checkout counter, engaged in a half-hour conversation with the owner or clerk, is a familiar sight.



"The Indian and Pakistani community, when they go to their own stores, they talk a lot to each other," Thara said. "They talk about normal stuff—sports, politics, back home, just about everything. They are trying to feel a little bit of 'home' wherever they live."



That applies to people in the community who were born here as well, he said.



"It doesn't matter if they were born and raised here, or they have only been here a year," Thara said.



There can be drawbacks to those conversations, too. Sometimes the discussions seem to amplify the differences between their own culture and others in the area, he said.



Community venues, like these markets, however, can also be venues for cultural melding.



On a counter at Cedars Mediterranean Grill and Market there are a few stacks of business cards—a mechanic, a lawyer, a plumber, all with Middle Eastern–sounding names. Nearby, there is a stack of Arabic language newspapers.



Yet, Ibrihim Radwan, who along with his wife, Amal, started Cedars Mediterranean Grill and Market about eight years ago, said most of his customers are Americans or Venezuelans.



Specialty food



Radwan, originally from Palestine, stocks items the larger supermarket chains do not have. There is a special variety of olive oil, for example, that customers seek out, a particular Bulgarian feta cheese, cheese and spinach pies, falafel mix, hummus, baba ghannouj, Greek yogurt and fresh pita bread.



"We bring customers things they can't find," Radwan said.



The Radwans also specialize in making traditional Mediterranean sweets and cookies—baklava, namoura, rice pudding—all made without any artificial flavors or preservatives.



Similarly, Thara said that customers of Katy Grocers come in seeking products made with Halal meat—the type and method of processing animals permitted by Islam. Chicken, beef, goat and lamb can be Halal; pork cannot.



All the meats in Katy Grocers' frozen section are Halal. That includes several dozen packaged microwave-style meals.



Halal meat is also popular with a variety of non-Muslim Indians—Christians, for example—who prefer the taste and preparation style, Thara said.



The store has seen such a rise in demand that the owners plan to open a Halal and Kosher meat market at the back of the store in a month.



Gauging the population



Tracking the growth of many of these cultural and ethnic groups is not easy because of their size, said Michael Cline, associate director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, based at Rice University.



In the city limits of Katy, specifically, there is fast growth in the Asian population but the overall number is still very small, he said.



One particular group, Asian Indians, for example, grew from six individuals to 49 individuals between 2000 and 2010.



"Percentage-wise that's a big jump, but it is still a small group of people," Cline said.



Of the city's childhood population under 18, about 51 percent were non-Hispanic whites—one of the racial categories tracked by the U.S. Census. That means that nearly half of the childhood population in the area consists of groups other than non-Hispanic whites—the largest of which was Hispanics. The Hispanic population is growing everywhere in Texas, he said.



"You even see places outside of the city, like Cinco Ranch, which one might expect to be primarily Anglo—which it is—with much more diversity in the 2010 census [than in 2000]," Cline said.



But a lot can happen between census decades. Groups can move into an area and not show up on the Census Bureau's yearly estimates, Cline said.



Doing business



Anecdotally, there is an upsurge in the diversity and number of cultures and ethnicities represented in the local business community, said Ann Hodge, president of the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce.



Some of those communities are more insulated than others from business networks, such as the chamber.



As of late, there have been several new businesses owned by people from South and Central American cultures, she said.



Unlike Venezuelan business owners, however, Indo-Pak and some Asian entrepreneurs have been hesitant to join the chamber, Hodge said.



Thara said they are not sure about the advantages of joining. The chamber has not approached the store about joining. He admits, however, that he never really sought out information either.



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