The Telez family opened up its first grocery store in 2006.
In Columbia and West Columbia, there are 30 grocery stores catering to exotic cuisines from around the world.
Here are three of their stories.
FROM MEXICO TO THE AMERICAN DREAM
Ricardo Telez’s parents came to the United States from Mexico a week before he was born.
”My parents grew up in a really small, poor village,” Telez said. “They had this ambitious idea of opening a Mexican store in the U.S., trying to introduce our ingredients to the American public.”
Despite not having connections in America, the Telezes opened their first business — a combination of a restaurant and a grocery store – in 2006. Now, they own five Mexican combination stores, four in the Midlands and one in Charlotte.
All of the stores’ employees are of Hispanic heritage. Pinatas line the ceiling of each store. The most popular selling item is tortillas.
“We’re not just Mexican, we’re Guatemalan, Honduran, (and from) Peru, Costa Rica, Columbia, Puerto Rico,” Telez said. “Small pieces which add up the whole store.”
Ricardo Telez, 20, is gearing up to take over the store and continue his parents’ legacy.
“Eventually, they get tired,” Telez said. “They need to enjoy their money. And thanks to all their hard work, they can now comfortably go to Mexico and come back.”
Another ethnic grocery store in West Columbia is Nyu Yang’s Golden Asian Grocery, off Charleston Avenue.
“Around here, a lot of Asian people, but not much Asian grocery stores,” Yang said.
Yang has been running the store for 10 years. But because his English isn’t strong, the most he usually says to his customers is, “Take it easy.”
His products are from his country of Myanmar, an Asian nation bordered by India, China and Thailand. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is known for having the longest military dictatorship in the world.
Yang escaped Myanmar in September of 1988 following a violent crackdown on demonstrators who were calling for democracy.
“We don’t see the government,” he said. “They just took the power. They are (thieves) … So, big trouble in my country. I ran away from the country to (Thailand’s) border. … At the same time, the whole country was uprising.”
For three years, Yang worked for the American Relief Committee at Thailand’s border, helping others who had escaped. He said he was the only person in his family with the courage to leave.
”Today is the very (worst) time to be (in Myanmar),” Yang said.
After three years in Thailand, one of Yang’s university friends convinced him and his wife to move to the United States for a better standard of living. Yang said he still tries to bring awareness to his culture with traditional Myanmar clothing, fans and maps.
“I miss a lot of food, traditions and festivals,” Yang said.
HEALTH ADVICE FROM INDIA
Viren Patel opened the Indian Grocery off Bush River Road 17 years ago. Viren Patel’s interest in food started when he was a child sitting around his grandmother’s dinner table in India.
”Our grandmother and grandfather, they always — whenever they serve the food — before we start eating, we have to pray, and then we have to explain why we are eating this and what the benefits are,” Patel said.
Patel’s parents moved to the United States for a better living. He followed them, moving here in 2002.
”If you are here, then you are going to ask your relatives or your son or daughter to come here also,” Viren Patel said.
He said he wanted to stay in Columbia to help his parents as they age and found opening a grocery store the best way to do so. Everyone who works at the store is part of the Patel family. The Indian Grocery sells essentials for the Indian culture, with food and Hindu devotional items.
“We eat medicine, we don’t take medicine,” Patel said. “Basically, that’s why we eat more vegetables, more spices. It’s not spicy. It’s spices, and it helps you to cure certain diseases in your body.”
A customer, Banci Patel, who’s not related to Viren Patel, moved to Columbia from India in 2010.
“Sometimes the vegetables in India aren’t really found in American grocery stores,” she said, talking about her favorite vegetable, a thin-skinned gourd known as the pointed gourd. “So usually at that (the Indian) grocery store, they have vegetables that are custom to our culture.”
The pointed gourd she loves originates in India and is known for its health benefits, such as being a blood purifier, reducing one’s chances of getting the flu, improving digestion and treating constipation. Viren Patel views this kind of vegetable, when mixed with Indian spices, as a natural vitamin.
“We explain to (our kids) the same way our grandparents do it,” Viren Patel said.