Food for everyone: Fargo international market serves diversifying population

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Co-owner John Huynh shows off fresh produce at the Asian and American Supermarket in Fargo, N.D., on June 27.
Amy Felegy | MPR News 2023

Amid shelves of aloe juice, edamame and pomelo fruit, shoppers and employees chat as ambient flute music plays overhead.

Flags from around the world hanging above the aisles move slightly in the HVAC breeze — Kuwait dances with China, Singapore and Ethiopia overlook the produce aisle. 

It’s only fitting for the biggest international grocery store in both North and South Dakota: the Asian and American Supermarket. It’s celebrating just over one year at its new location.

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Co-owner John Huynh picks up a ramen packet, one of many varieties at the Asian and American Supermarket in Fargo.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

The Fargo, N.D., shop moved in January 2023, swapping out its small-but-longstanding warehouse for a high-ceilinged, expansive store — a 13,000-square-foot increase (imagine two Circle K convenience stores versus six.) 

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Sure, the change has meant a 30 percent increase in customers and a new deli space, co-owner John Huynh said. But the A&A Supermarket’s success goes beyond the numbers. 

‘Really, really, really important’ 

The area’s diverse community convenes at the market, located at 1425 Main Ave., about a mile and a half from the Red River on the city’s east side.

“This place is not only a place for people to come to buy groceries. It means a lot to provide to the community, especially our culture,” said Huynh, who runs the supermarket with his sister Sarah. “We get a chance to see people, you know, from our community, meet new people from different cultures and then bring all of them together.” 

It hasn’t always been like this. Decades ago, Huynh lived in Pelican Rapids and more recently in Minneapolis. 

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Co-owner John Huynh outside the Asian and American Supermarket.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

“Whenever we [came] to Fargo, we [didn’t] see a lot of people from a different culture at all,” he said, adding he moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area in 2016 to join his sister at the market. What he found surprised him. 

“I said, ‘Wow … Fargo-Moorhead [is] changing right now.’ We see a lot of people moving here,” Huynh said. 

Between 2000 and 2019, North Dakota and South Dakota both experienced a rapid increase in the Asian American population, said Minnesota State University Moorhead marketing professor Hyun Sang An. He said businesses such as A&A are integral to that change. 

“The international grocery stores, especially Asian grocery stores or African grocery stores … play a role to attract more ethnic minorities into this area,” An said.

Economically speaking, An said having a major, growing international business can draw people to an isolated metro area such as Fargo-Moorhead. And it keeps residents shopping locally rather than traveling to Canada or the Twin Cities for grocery needs — and more. 

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Frequent customer Kim Palomero goes through his purchases of the day at the Asian and American Supermarket.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

Just ask Fargo resident Shayna Karuman, who is Singaporean and Malaysian-American.

“Having the ingredients and like, the supplies available to cook the same food as I want to my culture is really, really, really important,” she said. “That allows me to connect with my mom and my parents a lot deeper.”

“Even though I am far away from where they live in California, I can still try and get close to my culture by replicating the recipes that their parents have taught them,” she said.

Before the market expanded, Karuman said she would pack her bags full of food while visiting family on the West Coast or stock up with a seven hour round trip drive to Minneapolis. 

“That way I wouldn’t have to just eat some American food, which I enjoy but doesn’t necessarily reach my cultural needs,” Karuman said. “If something was purchased nearby [it] also allowed me to host potluck and welcome friends over, Asian-American people, and try new recipes.”

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Coworkers with family members, supervisor Clara Madrangcher stocks shelves at the Asian and American Supermarket.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

At the store, supervisor Clara Madrangcher hums a little tune, interspersing the melody with the crinkle of chicken feet flavored Lays bags. Arranging the shelves, she said she feels at home.

She pointed to her brother pushed a rack of products through the produce section. Madrangcher’s husband works there, too.

“All three of us,” she said. “We love the store. We’re like family in the store.” 

From global to local

A&A Supermarket manager Paul Tann, who is Huynh’s brother-in-law, said the market, along with a few smaller stores in the area such as Lotus Blossom International Market, has been an important hub for meeting global ingredient needs.

What started as mostly Asian products has grown to countless more, he said: “We have the Korean products, we have Middle East, we have the Chinese, the Indian, Philippine,” he gestures widely to a swath of goodies. 

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What started as mostly Asian products has grown to countless more at the Asian and American Supermarket.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

Tann, who has been with the market since its inception at its smaller store in 1996, laughed as he led a tour of the impressive tea, coffee and drink options from around the world: Vietnamese coffee, boba tea, sugar cane juice. 

“There’s so many different types,” he said. 

It’s something frequent customer Kim Palomero appreciates about A&A. The Fargoan shops there at least once a week. 

“It makes the transition and adaptation — especially the weather — of the newcomers easier,” said Palomero, who is Filipino-American. 

“This supermarket also brings in curiosity to the local community of the Fargo-Moorhead area to adventure and explore our gastronomic culture, which strengthens a better understanding towards our new Filipino-Americans and other communities in the area.” 

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Kim Palomero said A&A is the main alternative to Filipino restaurants, which he said are nonexistent in the area. So he cooks.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

Holding a plastic grocery bag of okra and pastillas de ube at the market, Palomero said A&A is as close as he can get to Filipino restaurants. There are none in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

So he cooks. 

In the market, he pulls up a video on his phone of his Fargo-Moorhead Filipino friends, congregating around food from A&A.  

“I still long for my real home in Southeast Asia,” he said. “One way to relieve the homesickness is to have a hot meal coming from your home country.”  

There really is no place like home, he said. Especially when it tastes like it.

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Co-owner John Huynh walks past a bountiful array of ramen for sale at the Asian and American Supermarket.
Amy Felegy | MPR News