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Demand At Specialty Grocery Stores Grows As Shoppers Stock Up Amid Coronavirus Concerns

Sign posted saying "New Seoul Oriental Market."
Robbie Gaffney
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WFSU-FM

As people search for staples on nearly empty grocery store shelves, some are turning to small international markets to find goods. Owners of these businesses are noticing demand surges on par with what's happening nationally.

packages of noodles.
Robbie Gaffney
/
WFSU-FM

Josh Ching is picking up soba noodles from one of the shelves inside the New Seoul Oriental Market. Ching says it's hard to find authentic Japanese noodles. Finding the rice he likes isn't easy either. He's looking at two different bags on a shelf.

"Yeah, it's a hard time to find the rice and the rice we like—like Asian rice," Ching says.

Store owner Seunghwan Lee, who goes by Swan, says it's hard to find smaller bags of rice to stock in his store, and prices are rising for certain kinds. 

"I saw like a lot of people buy water and toilet paper something like that, but you know for most Asians their first concern is rice," Swan says.

Man smiles at camera.
Robbie Gaffney
/
WFSU-FM

Right now, he's noticing that the demand is for 15-pound bags. However, the most readily available is in 50-pound bags, the kind restaurants order.

He notes that before COVID-19, he never bought 50-pound bags, but now he has no other choice. Still, Swan's not sure what the impacts of COVID-19 will be. 

"Short-term people buy more to stock up, but in the long-term, I don't know," Swan says.

Large bags of rice are stacked toe the right. Smaller bags on the left.
Robbie Gaffney
/
WFSU-FM

Although he carries foreign goods, Swan's experience isn't far off from the impacts larger grocery store chains are facing. Laura Strange is with the National Grocers Association. It represents independent and family-owned grocery stores. She says domestically, panic buying has disrupted the supply chain, and manufacturers are trying to catch up.

"So you might not necessarily see six different assortments on the shelves of a product, but rather you might see two," Strange says.

Data collected by a Nielsen study shows demand for baking yeast, beans, and rice has grown significantly in the past few weeks compared to the same time last year.

"So people are grabbing 10, five, 10 at a time when normally they would come in and get one," Lana Daniel, owner of Destin Euro Market, says. 

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Destin Euro Market
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Facebook

Daniel's store sells mainly eastern European goods. She usually sells 200 packets of buckwheat a month, but recently she's sold 200 packets in five days. 

"Eastern Europe [is] big on different grains that Americans don't really use much here. We have things like buckwheat and semolina, and barley, and things like that—that people use constantly. So yeah, we're definitely [short] on those," Daniel says.

"A lot of people bought all the toilet paper. A lot of people bought all the rice," Sleming Lopez owner of Indo-Pak says.

Indo-Pak is a grocery store in Panama City that sells Jamaican and Latino goods. Lopez says in those cultures, it's common to eat rice and beans every day. However, he says because of coronavirus buying, it has become almost impossible to find rice in the city. Another staple for his customers—beans—is also challenging to find. Lopez says he was lucky to stock up on beans when he had the chance. 

"This guy came from New Orleans, and he had beans. He had a lot of beans. So I said, are you serious—you have a lot of beans, and he's like, yes, so I told him to bring a lot, so he brought me a lot of beans," Lopez says. 

Now, a checkpoint is set up to deter Louisiana traffic from coming into Florida. 

"He usually comes every Friday or every Saturday, so I don't know if he's going to be able to make it this weekend," Lopez says.

Jim Kabbani is CEO of the Tortilla Industry Association. Members include factories that make tortillas. 

"Tortillas are flying off the shelves in certain parts of the country such as Chicago... They're limiting how many packages customers can buy," Kabbani says.

He notes tortillas have a long shelf-life, and people of all cultures eat them. Kabbani says it's hard to predict where the demand will be for different places.

"I was looking for cilantro the other day, and I went to three different major supermarkets and couldn't find any, and I was like, is cilantro in the same category as paper towels? But then I went to the Asian markets and the Hispanic markets and I found that they had plenty of cilantro. So you know, it's kind of hard to tell what's going to hit where," Kabbani says.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there are no nationwide shortages of food, and certain foods are only temporarily unavailable until stores can be restocked.