Looking for fresh curry leaves, patis fish sauce or black cardamom pods? A few months ago, finding such ingredients in the Moncton area might have been tricky.
But a recent trend of small international grocery stores opening in the Moncton area is making that search a lot easier, and enriching the city's cuisine options as well.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered or even closed some businesses, international grocery stores are seeing a bit of a boom in Greater Moncton, with at least four opening within the past few months and another set to open soon.
For Usman Ali, who opened Ali Kingdom Pakistani grocery store on Killam Drive last month, the growing appetite for international groceries is great news.
Ali and his family moved to Moncton two years ago from Quebec City, and lived in Edmonton before that.
In those cities, finding the grocery staples they depended on had never been a problem, Ali said. When they relocated to Moncton, they soon learned they couldn't take that easy access for granted anymore.
Turning a challenge into an opportunity
Certain staples were either completely unavailable or were available in larger chains in the "international foods" aisles, but at a significant markup.
But they realized there was an opportunity in that hardship, even amid a pandemic-squeezed business landscape.
Grocery stores are "essential," Ali said.
Regardless of what else closes, people need to eat and many are doing more cooking at home.
So while COVID-19 might make be the worst time to open some businesses, "it is the best time" for others, Ali said.
"Even if we were to have more cases and go back to the Orange level, we would have to restrict people but we would still be open. …This business will not shut down," Ali said. "That reduces the risks for all of these new grocery stores opening up."
Hossam Sif Aldin, owner of HS Empire Store on Regis Street in Dieppe, has experienced those risks first-hand.
A businessman who moved to Moncton as a Syrian refugee, Sif Aldin said he initially tried to open a cellphone business but the pandemic got in the way.
After just two weeks, he said, he had to close due to COVID-19 restrictions.
"It hurt me a lot," he said. "I made the decision to open a bigger store and put in international groceries, so if something happened in the future and COVID came back, I wouldn't have to close again."
But beyond the business benefits, having a robust and diverse array of grocery offerings benefits the community, the city, even the province.
Consumer tastes are changing and there has been a general shift to eat from a more diverse set of cuisines, thanks to cooking shows, recipe websites, food magazines and immigration – something New Brunswick needs, wants and welcomes.
The province has traditionally been a stopping place for new immigrants, who stay for a few years but ultimately move on to larger urban centres.
John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce, said a range of international grocery options and cuisines helps make Moncton more attractive to newcomers, and to those who grew up here as well.
It offers comfort, and makes life more welcoming for newcomers who simply want to access the foods they've always eaten.
"As someone who grew up in Moncton, 50 years ago my experience of international food was going out to a Chinese restaurant," Wishart said. Chinese food continues to be a top draw with diners, but "the diversity we're seeing now is a reflection of immigration levels."
Wishart said Moncton welcomed almost 2,000 newcomers last year.
"There are enough communities of a size that they feel they can open a business that reflects their culture ... and that bodes well for attracting more newcomers. If they see grocery stores that reflect their homeland, they will be that much more likely to settle here."
Five new international grocery stores to check out
Mama's Supermarket, 551 Mountain Rd. Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Thai and Filipino items and produce.
Grand King, 362 George St. Indian grocery items, produce.
Ali Kingdom, 247 Killam Dr., Pakistani grocery items and produce.
HS Empire Store, 525 Regis St., Dieppe. Syrian grocery items (also sells clothing, giftware, cellphones)
Bombay Spice (opening soon)