The last $5 lobster roll has been sold in Portland. That is because Paul’s Food Center is closing. The loss will be felt hardest among nearby residents, many of whom are low income and face mobility challenges. But filling the void left by Paul’s may not be as difficult as one might think. In addition to Fresh Approach and the food aisle at Reny’s, there are already several grocery stores within walking distance of Paul’s. If you have not noticed them then your typical shopping list probably does not include palm oil colored with annatto, smoked catfish, Maggi cubes, dried plantain powder and other powdered starches used in preparation of the the sticky West African instant mashed potato type staple known collectively as fufu.
In Portland, ethnic grocery stores (for lack of a better term), must to be among the City’s fastest growing retail sectors. According to the internet, immigrants launch more than a quarter of U.S. businesses and new Americans today are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens. Recently, the Coastal Enterprise Institute issued a report identifying immigrants as essential to stemming Maine’s labor shortage. In the past decade, dozens of new grocery stores have been opened in Portland by entrepreneurs from South East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and several countries in Africa. Ethnic markets are among the first things I cite when I talk about what I like about Portland. Despite the numbers, the City of Portland does not yet have a program focused on developing entrepreneurial efforts by new immigrants, although that may change if the Office of New Americans gets off the ground.
Among the closest grocery stores to Paul’s is African International Grocery Store (located at 647 Congress St.) Unfortunately, despite its location among high-end rentals, this shop is not patronized by many native born Americans even though the store is large enough and has the available shelf space to stock more products and serve a wider clientele without compromising the core inventory. An example of a hybrid-type grocery store is Peace Food Market at the corner of Chestnut and Cumberland, which is something of a hybrid between a Somali market and a 7-11.
Obviously in this age of big box stores, running a successful small supermarket or corner store is not an easy task, and most get by on beer, soda, cigarettes, and junk food. This makes the need all the more urgent.
Over the years, I have spoken to numerous immigrant store owners, store clerks, and shoppers. When posed with the proposition of expanding their product line many have said that they are busy enough without adding more products and clientele and that their clientele prefer the limited selection and distinct appearance. I have also noticed that some store clerks become nervous when they see me come in (perhaps due to language barriers), but the ice is quickly broken with the mention of fufu. (Not to mention that the ensuing conversation also gives me the opportunity to dust-off my high school French.)
Naturally, the City of Portland should not be mandating the inventory of any business and shouldn't do so selectively. But developing a merchant class and gaining more neighborhood butchers, bakers, vegetable stands and small groceries (including a reimagined Joe’s Variety) is in nearly everyone’s best interest. Neighborhood shops promote economic development, public health, environmental sustainability and social justice.
In the meantime, if you will miss Paul’s cheap lobster rolls and excellent banana bread you can make do in the time being with smoked fish stew and fufu.
(Zack Barowitz is a flâneur; his work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.)