Texas

The only Asian grocer in Waco serves a growing community with rare ingredients and Filipino food.

During lunch break at East Market and Goods in Waco, the aromas of wok-cooked chicken and savory pancits waft through rows of packaged bean strings and papadums. Hungry guests at the counter watch as expert chefs prepare Filipino delicacies like crispy lumpia, grilled pork belly to perfection, and homemade adobo chicken — dishes you won’t find anywhere else in Waco unless you have a Filipina aunt.

Husband and wife shop and deli owners Tim Kulkarni and Joni Navarra take charge of running the only Asian grocery store in town. In their 6,500-square-foot space in a busy strip mall off Highway 84, Kulkarni and Navarra have developed a varied and ever-changing gourmet menu and stocked shelves with culinary essentials from a wide variety of Asian cultures.

The deli, open for lunch, is a tribute to Navarre’s Filipino heritage but also serves dishes such as Japanese pork katsu sandwiches on fluffy homemade milk bread and kima, a chili-like dish from the Indian culture of Kulkarni. They hope to expand their menu to include dishes like dinuguan, a Filipino stew with pig’s blood, but for now they’re focusing on dishes that are more likely to sell.

In a city where Asians make up approximately 3 percent of the population, being accessible and acceptable to non-Asians while still meeting the needs of the Asian community is a delicate balance. “We feel pressure,” says Kulkarni, “but it forces us to do our best.”

While he and Navarra have been well versed in Indian and Filipino cuisine since childhood and have eaten all over Asia and Europe during their travels, they are new to catering. With professional backgrounds in information technology, food science and retail management, Kulkarni and Navarra moved to Waco for work in 2017 and stayed in a small town where they raised two young children. Waco had everything they needed except for the Asian foods they were used to living in Houston and New Orleans. Realizing that others in Waco were looking for the same thing, they quit their jobs and founded East Market and Goods in the fall of 2020.

Oriental Market in Waco
A number of products in the Eastern market.Contributed by Tim Kulkarni

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, Waco had another Asian grocery store. It was run by the founders of Clay Pot, Vietnam’s oldest and oldest Waco restaurant, which was East Market’s wholesale customer for items such as rice paper, tofu, and bean sprouts. Thanh Le, current owner of Clay Pot, says the Vietnamese community was too small at the time to run a grocery store and the business didn’t last long.

“They’re trying to expand the community by trying to glue us together,” Le says of Kulkarni and Navarra’s efforts. “I introduced Waco to my culture and hosted Lunar New Year events, but my population — my clients — are mostly American. East Market is trying to connect all the different Asian cultures because everyone is disparate and we don’t have an official Asian group in Wako.”

Kulkarni and Navarra deliberately designed their store to be bright, attractive and easy to navigate in order to be accessible to their 60 percent non-Asian customers. They even take flavor into account when selling spicy foods like fish balls by putting them in a special refrigerator. While they wholesale most of Waco’s Asian restaurants, they also supply items such as lemons, cabbage, and cucumbers to businesses such as Oh My Juice, a set of Waco juice stores, one of which is next door to Oriental Market.

“Their prices are actually lower than the big box stores and I highly recommend them to locals as groceries because they will also find groceries especially for you,” says Lola Flores, manager of Oh My Juice. Flores also buys food for his family at the Eastern Market, snacking on chili paste, sriracha, Thai sweet and sour sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise, and sends his 12-year-old son to the deli for his favorite snack, grilled chicken skewers.

Kulkarni and Navarra have heard word of mouth that Asian shoppers refer to their market as an “Asian shop for whites” who want more Asian employees to work there. “This is a pain point,” says Kulkarni. “We didn’t have Asian applicants, so we had to teach every“. To address these issues, Navarra makes its presence known when it sees Asian shoppers browsing the aisles, so shoppers “know there’s an Asian behind the scenes,” she says.

And then there’s the challenge of catering to the diverse members of the Asian community. “Every dish has regional differences, family differences, and people are fiercely loyal to the dishes they know, down to the brand of ingredients they use,” Kulkarni says. He admits it’s hard to get it right for everyone, especially given that Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the US, and many of Waco’s 6,700 new residents who have moved there over the past eight years have come from cities with a variety of grocery stores. stores such as Seattle, New York and Washington, DC

Waco’s Asian community is becoming more visible, Navarra said, and they’re rallying around the Eastern Market and at events like the upcoming Lunar New Year festival on Sunday, where 28 vendors will be seated in a parking lot. While preparing purple sweet potato and yellow mung bean mooncakes – a traditional New Year’s treat – for five thousand expected visitors, Navarre reflects on the success they have made in the local Asian community. “We are coming out of hiding,” she says. “People are coming out of little pockets right outside of Waco – Gatesville, Lacey Lakeview.”

Long hours of recipe development, staff management, and trips to Dallas for ingredients are all part of the love job that runs East Market and Goods. “This is American entrepreneurship — straps, laces and belt buckles,” Kulkarni says of what supports them. “And that’s the first generation Asian way of doing things: use what I have, do what I know I can kick out of the park, and try to improve society and life for the next generation.”

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