Michael Poto peered into the case at DeCaro’s Bakery and Deli, appraising the parmesiano regano, the pecorino romano and the homemade Italian sausage.
“I’m here looking for the taste of home,” says Poto, who moved from an Italian neighborhood in Boston to Spokane three months ago.
Poto isn’t alone. Newcomers to Spokane are looking long and hard for the ethnic tastes they grew up with in other places. Small business owners are experimenting with new ways of providing those tastes.
Five North Side business owners have combined ethnic restaurants and grocery stores under one roof in the last five years.
The owners say the combination increases the chances of an ethnic foods business surviving in Spokane.
La Tiendita, 3150 N. Division, and The Lotus Seed and adjoining Oriental Market, 1212 N. Hamilton, opened originally to serve ethnic communities.
Others, such as DeCaro’s Little Italy and Pierone’s Deli, 820 E. Francis, opened to serve a mainstream American clientele and picked up more Italian-American customers as they developed their deli services.
In both cases, owners say Spokane is about to make a giant leap forward in ethnic diversity.
Already people moving from other parts of the United States, including California and the East Coast, come expecting different kinds of ethnic foods.
Latino, Southeast Asian and Russian communities are growing rapidly. People in those communities want foods that can’t be bought in mainstream grocery stores.
Rachel Maldanado was surprised at a lack of Mexican foods available in Spokane when she moved here in the late 1980s.
“I went to the grocery store and then I called my husband and said, ‘There’s no food here,”’ she said. “I was used to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where all the major grocery stores carried Mexican food.”
The couple opened La Tiendita as a small store on Garland Avenue in 1991. They catered to the Spokane Latino community, now estimated to number about 8,000 people, by featuring Spanish-language videos, first communion kits and foods not commonly found in Spokane.
“We carry things that people need - sometimes at a loss to us,” Maldanado said. “Some things make good community sense but not good business sense.”
Last fall La Tiendita moved to North Division and expanded to having both the store and a restaurant. The restaurant is the main attraction for people who aren’t Latino, while the store serves mostly people from the Latino community.
“We realized that the area in which we would grow is the restaurant,” she said. “The store has a limited market. We don’t have the entire Spokane community to draw customers from.”
Similarly, Amy Tran, owner of The Lotus Seed, a Vietnamese restaurant, and her brother-in-law, Tieng Trinh, who operates the adjoining Oriental Market, find that the two businesses have totally different customers.
Trinh primarily sells groceries such as jasmine rice, curries and fish sauce to Vietnamese people living on the North Side and downtown. That population numbers about 5,000 people and is growing with a stream of new immigrants.
Unlike the more upscale DeCaro’s, Trinh is accustomed to helping customers who are on a tight budget because they are just getting established in America. His 4-yearold shop seems to provide some of the comfort of home to people in his community.
Tran, who grew up in Spokane, feeds a completely different clientele in The Lotus Seed.
“We thought this is the opportunity to get into the restaurant business before anyone else opens a Vietnamese restaurant,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time before more follow.”
“When we first opened, we thought we would have more Vietnamese customers. But we have mostly Caucasian customers - people who are new to Spokane.”
Tran is reaching out to the broader community by placing coupons in entertainment books. People who aren’t Vietnamese go to the Oriental Market after tasting something at The Lotus Seed that they want to make at home.
Operating an ethnic grocery store and restaurant in Spokane presents extra challenges.
Frank DeCaro spends long hours on the phone searching out specialty foods from warehouses in Seattle, San Francisco or New York. He likes the hunt and then delights in talking about the new things - most recently fresh mozzarella balls - he has found.
Frank and Anne Marie DeCaro moved their 12-year-old restaurant from North Monroe to North Division two years ago. The new building has two kitchens, which allows the DeCaros to make more food from scratch, including the sausages they grind and stuff.
Having the restaurant and store combined made good business sense. Between the store and the restaurant, the DeCaros can buy large enough quantities of fresh meat and cheese to make the orders affordable. Then the products can be sold quickly because both businesses are selling them.
Dick Pieroni, owner of Pierone’s Deli on Francis near Nevada, formerly owned a fancy Italian restaurant, first on Northwest Boulevard, then downtown. Now he’s making homemade frozen meals and fresh takeout food for busy people.
The latest combination store and restaurant is Nezabudka, 1104 W. Wellesley. Owners Alla and Vladamir Kuzmenko serve RussianUkrainian food, but their store and restaurant serve as an informal gathering place for their community. A bulletin board in the back of the restaurant lets people share useful addresses and business cards.