By Jeffrey Renken
Mexico, Africa and East Asia are thousands of miles apart, but their food is within walking distance of one another in one neighborhood of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Around 27th and Vine Streets, a variety of stores offer immigrants a taste of home and Nebraskans a chance to try something new. A recent tour organized by the New Americans Task Force gave people an opportunity to explore a few of these small immigrant-owned businesses.
First stop on the tour was Lincoln Grocery Mart at 2619 Holdrege St., owned by Ishaq Gamous.
Gamous came to America from Darfur, Sudan, in 2006. His first employer was Tyson Foods in Omaha, where he worked seven days a week for 11 months before deciding that he needed something better. He then started business school at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Once Gamous earned his degree, he opened his first store, Sudanese Grocery Store, in 2009 in Omaha.
Gamous still lives in Omaha and mostly works at that store, but he wanted to help other immigrants by expanding the business. So in 2013, Gamous opened the Lincoln store.
“In Lincoln, we have a community here, and we have to be close so people don’t have to travel far,” Gamous said.
Gamous was referring to the African and Middle Eastern immigrant communities that his store specializes in serving. The store carries groceries from these areas that other stores don’t have.
Gamous said the store serves a variety of customers, but the majority are African immigrants looking for something familiar.
Next stop on the tour was Oriental Market at 612 N. 27th St.
Aram and Sirirat Ruenprom opened the Asian grocery store 38 years ago. According to their daughter, Cathy Ruenprom, both came from Thailand, but they didn’t meet until they came to the United States for college. While earning graduate degrees at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the couple opened the store with money from Aram’s grandfather.
When it opened, Oriental Market was both a restaurant and a grocery store. Aram was the cook in the restaurant half of the building, while Sirirat ran the store.
Now, dozens of 25-pound bags of rice sit where the tables and booths used to be. Five years ago, the restaurant half of the building closed when Aram retired, but the store is still run by the Ruenprom family.
Cathy Ruenprom started working in the restaurant when she was in high school. Now she manages the store with help from her sister-in-law and four part-time employees.
Ruenprom said UNL is a big part of the store’s success. Every employee either has a degree from there or is a current student, and she said that 75 percent of their customers are international college students who come here when they feel homesick.
“They get snacks they had growing up, and they’re so happy to see it again,” she said.
She also said the store’s location on 27th Street has helped the business, but she knows many people drive by and don’t stop because they don’t know what’s inside.
“But inside it’s nothing so bad. There’s no voodoo here—no hanging ducks. Nothing like that,” she said.
Last stop on the tour was Pan Dulce at 505 N. 27th St.
Cesar Arza came from Mexico and started working as a baker in Lincoln. He got loans as a first-time business owner and opened the first Pan Dulce in downtown Lincoln 2009 because he thought Lincoln needed a Hispanic bakery. In 2013, he opened this second location.
Cesar Arza Jr. started working for his father when the first bakery opened. Arza Jr. started by working the cash register and cleaning. Now he’s a baker at the newer store.
“I like the job much more now. Making the desserts is my favorite,” Arza Jr. said.
According to Arza Jr., the French bread is the biggest seller because people say it tastes just like what they had at home.
All three business owners said people visit because they want something from home. One of the goals of the New Americans Task Force is to get immigrants and refugees settled into their new home. According to Christa Yoakum, who organized the tour for the task force, these businesses help ease that transition by providing something that’s familiar to the new residents. It’s also a way for people in Lincoln to try something new.
“We do this as a way to come to the store,” Yoakum said. “It’s not a store I’d shop in unless I knew what was here.”
Yoakum tries to have two or three tours a year to keep up with new business in Lincoln and spread news about them.
As new businesses open, the current ones from the tour are planning for the future.
Arza Jr. said his parents are looking to expand the business by adding on to a current store or by opening a third.
Gamous has future plans, too, but they don’t involve his store.
He wants to open a daycare and community center. Gamous said he’s felt so welcomed in Nebraska that he wants to have a place where new residents can meet and feel the same way.
“Nebraska is the best place,” Gamous said. “Every day I meet new people coming here. I want them to be happy, too.”