Saraga is rooted everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The international market is, in some ways, like traveling to a foreign airport. People are constantly in transit, walking fast or sailing quietly. One can hear snippets of conversations in French or Burmese or a number of other languages ââas they stroll down the long aisles.
Indianapolis grocery stores specializing in Asian, African, South American or international products often have more specialized items and create an atmosphere that reminds shoppers of their home, but Saraga has evolved into a hub where culture is both preserved and blended. Today, the 62,000 square foot international market on the west side of Indianapolis is a one-stop shop for people of all walks of life.
âThe most important selling point for Saraga is that Saraga offers the widest variety of product types,â said Brad Nam, Marketing Director of Saraga.
Over the years, the international market has expanded to include locations in the south and in Columbus, Ohio. Today, each of the three Saragas is a place where kids buy snacks, couples buy new foods to try, and factory workers drive for hours to buy crates of vegetables to freeze.
Saraga carries food from almost every continent which is sorted into aisles based on the country or region of origin, so almost everyone will encounter something they have never seen before. There is an entire aisle dedicated to Asian noodles, the seafood counter has around 100 different varieties of fish and seafood, and a meat counter at the back of the store serves halal cuts.
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For Alejandro Castillo, who has worked at Saraga for two years, his time in the store allowed him to discover many Asian dishes that were unknown to him since his childhood in Nicaragua.
Among her favorite new introductions are Korean pomegranates and pears. âI had never tried these before,â he said.
The hope, Nam says, is not just that customers find and try new foods from different countries but that Saraga can be part of the diverse community of Indianapolis.
How Saraga started
Starting international megastores isn’t necessarily what the Sung brothers, part-owners of Saraga, envisioned when they moved from South Korea to Indianapolis in the early 1990s..
BJ ran a grocery store in South Korea and wanted to expand into a place where there were more opportunities and less competition. John wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. Both of their visions have changed from their initial conception.
The Sungs came to Indianapolis with a total of $ 40 in their pocket to join their sister who had immigrated years before. They worked in beauty stores and other small businesses to save enough to start their own businesses.
Together, the brothers sold handbags imported from their truck in the Southeastern United States, often sleeping in their vehicle on the road. They finally had enough money to rent a flea market stand in Kentucky.
In five years, they opened a small Korean grocery store in Bloomington and named it Saraga.
Sung estimates that the city’s Korean population at the time was around 500 – too small to maintain a business.
In 2005, Sungs expanded his Korean grocery shopping dreams to include foods from around the world in a former Super Kmart on the west side of Indianapolis.
Expanding beyond Korean products was a practical business decision. They saw the diversity among the Indianapolis immigrant communities in the region as a potential for more clients.
For Magda Rodriguez, who moved to Indianapolis last year, Saraga is where she found Puerto Rican snacks like Cameo, a brand of cream cookies and ingredients for making staples like sofrito, a paste used to season many Puerto Rican dishes. These are hard to find in other grocery stores, even those that cater to Hispanic communities, she said.
âMost of the places are Mexican,â Rodriguez said. âIt’s really hard to find Puerto Rican products. ”
The challenges of an international grocery store
Deciding which products to transport has been one of Sung’s biggest challenges. Before opening the international grocery store in Indianapolis, he was familiar with Korean brands but had a lot to learn with products from other countries. Sometimes he would buy items that weren’t selling and get stuck with inventory. Other times people can’t find what they’re looking for and choose to shop elsewhere. It is constant trial and error.
Sung travels frequently, buys from markets and searches for new suppliers in major cities from New York to California to keep up with the latest trends. Recently, pink pineapples and cranberry beans have appeared on Saraga’s produce shelves as a result of these trips.
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Customers who cannot find familiar and popular products from a plethora of countries contact Nam to see if Saraga can start offering any. âWe can’t buy a specific item for a person, but more likely it won’t,â Nam said. “If someone likes it and asks for it, then there must be a reason.”
After receiving an email requesting a product, Nam takes the customer’s contact information and begins researching. His first gesture is always to ask Saraga employees in the country where the potential product is being made.
“This [asking employees] is the most accurate and the fastest, âNam explained,â We ââhave employees all over the place. “
Many of the employees are first generation immigrants who have a particular aisle in the store that sells food at home. Castillo, the worker from Nicaragua, was a regular customer of the store before stopping to apply for a job two years ago.
Saraga often hires people who speak some English and another language fluently. This is an asset for addressing customers and helps in the mix of languages ââthat can be heard in the store. They fill the communication gaps that arise by hiring bilingual managers who are comfortable in different languages, and with the help of Google Translate.
After consulting with his team, Nam directs customers to similar products that Saraga already offers or tries to find a supplier for the product. Recently, he looked into the snacks he saw in Korean dramas and the noodles recommended to him by a Nepalese employee.
Foods prepared with Saraga products are often a fusion of cultures and styles. Japanese ramen is mixed with spices and vegetables to make it more like ramen served in restaurants in the Philippines. Taiwanese dan bing (egg pancakes) are used as taco shells.
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International shopping center coming soon
Over the years, the store has hosted small family businesses including international restaurants, a Mexican bakery and more.
Karen-Thai Street Food, a new Thai restaurant opened by the Aye family in June, proudly serves recipes from Thailand and other Asian countries the Ayes grew up with as refugees from Burma. Across the store, La Reyna Bakery sells bread baked using recipes imported from Mexico.
According to Laura Soriano, whose family owns La Reyna Bakery, working in the international market means that “different customers can come in and try what we have going on.”
“If it were to be located somewhere else,” Soriano said, “we know for a fact that only Hispanics probably go because our bread is Hispanic.”
Soon Saraga will expand in Castleton. The new location will be anchored by a Saraga grocery store in the former 101,000 square foot Target at 8448 Center Run Drive and surrounded by international restaurants and clothing stores in the nearby mall.
âWe are creating an international shopping center,â Nam said. According to Nam, the market will offer more European groceries and natural foods. They also plan to open an international food court inside and are still looking for small businesses to fill the nearby mall. They are currently planning to open in March 2022.
The selection in Saraga is widening, but the mission is the same. From the white sapote demanded by New Zealand customers to upcoming new restaurants, Saraga will continue to bring people together around the world, one product at a time.