When Gayatri Miryala, who lives in northern New Jersey, stocked her kitchen with spices and groceries on March 13 to prepare for the novel coronavirus pandemic shutdown, she was hopeful that her supplies would get her through. “I thought the Indian grocery stores would reopen in two weeks,” she says. She stashed her pantry with a few staples that can be hard to find in standard American grocery stores: urad, toovar, and mung lentils, as well as some rice and ghee.
But after her supplies diminished quickly, she panicked. It was becoming increasingly hard to find specialty grocery retailers that were still open. Stores that were doing deliveries have limited windows of opportunity to place orders, while others have closed completely. Instead of using fresh curry leaves in dishes, she skipped them, and instead of ghee, she started to use peanut oil. And to get what she absolutely needed, she would go to busy shops in person.
“We were very scared to go shopping where people are so crammed and jam-packed, but there was no other way around it,” she says.
Miryala is one of many in the New York City and tri-state area who have faced extra hurdles in getting groceries because their staples are items that most grocery stores don’t typically stock. People now journey much farther from their homes to find stores carrying the foods they are used to, such as atta flour, kimchi, or black pork sausage. Specialty grocery stores, meanwhile, are closing because of staff shortages, and like other grocery stores, the ones that stay open are struggling to meet demand, leading to longer wait times, limited deliveries, and shortages in popular items such as rice.
For customers, it’s added stress and worry about whether their nutrition right now is adequate, since many are accustomed to a certain type of cuisine. Some are having a hard time adjusting to what is available in mainstream stores, while others are primarily seeking comfortng childhood meals in a time of undue stress. Notably, the new $170 million food plan from New York City’s new “food czar” Kathryn Garcia, who’s tasked with making sure people stay fed during the crisis, points to making sure people are getting food that’s both nutritious and “culturally and ethnically appropriate” — but some have observed that many needs for specialty foods are still not being met.
One nonprofit formed in early March to fill the void in shopping and medical needs for minority communities. The COVID-19 Tamil Task Team, which serves over 50,000 Tamil households in New York City and New Jersey, gets more requests for culturally specific groceries and meals every day, currently over 35 daily. More than 80 percent of them are from the NYC and New Jersey areas, according to Mahendran Sunderaj, one of 75 volunteers.
In one case, an elderly woman in NYC requested help to feed her and her 5-year-old grandson after her daughter died of COVID-19, says Sunderaj, who says basic protein sources like paneer and meat have become harder to get. “We are trying to help people get nutritious food because this situation is not going to end anytime soon,” he says, adding that the organization’s aim is to help people from all communities, not just the Tamil population.
For Chinese seniors living in New York, the food that the government usually gives out — such as canned tuna — can be unapproachable, says Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang, who started the Table to Table NYC initiative in mid-March to support the hard-impacted Chinese-American community and are working with organizations like the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC). “They are intimidated and don’t know what to do with these foods and ingredients,” Chang says.
The closures and more limited service encompass specialty groceries of all kinds. Some stores that have long had online presences with delivery, like the South Asian Desibasket and the Korean Hanyang Market, are not accepting new orders. Big players like Korean grocery H Mart are open but have stopped doing deliveries. Patel Brothers, the largest Indian grocery chain in the United States, with 50 stores, closed its doors for 10 days and reopened only recently.
And delivery platform Chowbus, an app focused on Chinese restaurants, added a grocery service after the crisis but has had to cancel some orders in New York. While supply is fairly stable elsewhere in the country, New York has been more of a struggle, according to CEO Wen Linxin. Supermarkets often don’t have enough supplies — and it’s happening just as customer orders get bigger, with many people buying more than $1,000 worth of groceries.
The overwhelming demand is difficult to meet in part because it’s hard to hire and train more staff amid the health crisis.
Sunrise Mart, a Japanese specialty market with four outposts in NYC, has limited online orders on the platform Mercato to six per hour because of reduced staff, according to chief operating officer Erina Yoshida.
When Rose Hill’s Little India specialty food store Kalustyan’s, which has been selling everything from gooseberry tea to spices since 1944, had to temporarily close on March 30, co-owner Aziz Osmani had to refund several orders because employees were not able to come in and process them. “Even when we opened online deliveries on [April] 13, we had a backlog of 180 orders by Tuesday, and had to suspend them again for a few days,” he says, citing the escalating demand.
And Patel Brothers temporarily stopped curbside pickup at a location in East Windsor, New Jersey after the grocery received more than 700 orders in one day. “Normally, we can handle about 80,” said Deep Patel, director of development and operations at Raja Foods and the Patel Brothers chain. “We have a shortage of staff, and we don’t have time to hire and train people right now.”
The limits on delivery are accompanied by new safety precautions, which in some cases have slowed down business despite increased demand. Rodrigo Duarte, who owns and operates Portuguese specialty food store Caseiro E Bom in Newark, typically has a customer base of over 14,000 households across various cities. But because he sells a lot of fresh meat, including pata negra ham, chorizo, and shellfish, customers often choose to come in person for selections at the store.
The process has been slower since everybody gets their temperature checked before they can come in and are given a pair of gloves, according to Duarte. “We don’t play games with the virus,” he says, but these safety measures have decreased the number of transactions because only so many people can be allowed in his store at any given time.
Still, customers are willing to travel to get the supplies they need. Already, the limited number of specialty grocery stores tend to be in neighborhoods with higher immigrant populations, which may be difficult to access for those who live outside of them.
Weehawken, New Jersey, resident Minhee Oh usually shops at NYC specialty Korean grocery stores like H Mart and Hanyang Market for items like noodles or Asian seasonings. But with limited delivery slots, she instead travels from Weehawken to Ridgefield to get ingredients that meet her needs — though she’s been trying to make do with what she already has as her concern about traveling increases.
Mithra Elango, a New Jersey resident who is pregnant, says she would gladly change her diet to items that are more readily available, but she has specific health needs that her local stores can’t meet. So her husband drives more than 20 miles to the neighboring town of Clifton, to Narmada Indian Groceries, though it typically has a long line.
But even those who visit stores in person may not find the supplies that they seek, due to delayed shipments of international goods or staffing issues. Items like instant soups, powders, sauces, and ready-to-eat meals such as packaged paneer saag and other curries are top sellers at stores like Patel and Food Bazaar, and may not be readily available. It takes about a month for some food to arrive from Japan to Midtown Japanese grocery store Katagiri, which has operated in New York since 1907, and vice president Wada Kei says he’s anticipating a shortage in the near future. “We are already out of California rice and black pork sausages,” he says.
Emily Koh, who is Korean American and lives in Gramercy, has been cooking dishes from her childhood during the pandemic, “simply because they are more comforting,” she says. But she has noticed that many staples she’s used to, including kimchi, are practically sold out at places like H Mart and Sunrise. “Sunrise used to have an entire aisle of kimchi, but the last time I went there, they only had three tubs,” she says. Sunrise’s Midtown location manager Amir Hossain has also seen a rush for frozen items including shumai and Gyoza dumplings. “Vegetables and instant noodles are in high demand,” he says, but notes that shipments to the store are half the typical volume.
Sahadi’s, which serves a large Middle Eastern population at its Industry City and Atlantic Avenue locations, has had trouble getting many products from all categories, according to co-owner Ron Sahadi. “Some vendors have regular stock, but some have been either delaying deliveries to us or only sending part of what we are ordering. Dairy and produce have been challenging,” he says, adding that because of the crisis, the store is not currently shipping out of state.
Wholesalers, including some that usually rely on restaurant business, offer some relief to locals seeking international groceries for delivery. Southeast Asia Group, which has supplied to restaurants such as O Ya, is offering items from Asian cuisines ranging from Thai and Japanese to Chinese and Indian for home delivery, with options such as steamed buns, curry powders, shaoxing cooking wine, and chile oils, all available if customers email the group.
Table to Table, the nonprofit initiative for Chinese seniors, has been able to make Chinese meals by sourcing ingredients from wholesale distributors, access that Tsai has as an owner at Malaysian cafe Kopitiam. Still, even with access to bulk sales, it’s getting harder to find the right supplies.
“I get maybe 75 percent of what I need,” Tsai says. “I asked for Napa cabbage the other day, and they didn’t have them, nor chiles, and we look at things on a week-by-week basis.”
And though these issues are confined to home cooking for now, the problems may eventually impact restaurants that require ingredients produced internationally as well. Eric Sze, owner of modern East Village Taiwanese restaurant 886, has been delivering bento boxes to health care workers daily through a collective formed with udon restaurant Raku and Taiwanese restaurant Ho Foods. For the boxes, which are funded by donations, he’s tried to stay clear of specialized ingredients simply because of the lack of availability. “Soy sauce is the most exotic ingredient we use,” he says. Sze has noticed that even tofu has become harder to get. Like other international ingredient sellers in NYC, Sze anticipates a shortage in specialty ingredients in the coming months.
“We can’t even get the local stuff,” he says, “so the imported stuff is going to be a luxury.”
With additional reporting by Tony Lin
Charu Suri is a freelance journalist who frequently contributes to The New York Times and Architectural Digest.