Saraga is rooted in everywhere and nowhere at once. The international market is, in some ways, like traveling through a foreign airport. People are constantly in transit, briskly walking or leisurely browsing. One can hear snippets of conversations in French or Burmese or any number of other languages as they walk through the long aisles.
Indianapolis groceries specializing in Asian, African, South American or other international products often carry more niche items and create an atmosphere that reminds shoppers of home, but Saraga has evolved to be a hub where culture is both preserved and mixed. Today, the 62,000-square-foot international market on the west side of Indianapolis is a one-stop shop for people of different backgrounds.
“The strongest selling point for Saraga is that Saraga has the most variety of types of products,” said Brad Nam, Saraga’s marketing manager.
Over the years, the international market has expanded to include locations in the southside and Columbus, Ohio. Today, each of the three Saragas is a place where kids shop for snacks, couples buy new foods to try and factory workers drive hours to buy crates of vegetables to freeze.
Saraga carries food from nearly every continent that are sorted into aisles based on country or region of origin, so almost everyone will encounter something they’ve never seen before. There’s a whole aisle dedicated to Asian noodles, the seafood counter carries about 100 different varieties of fish and seafood and a meat counter in 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 at the store has introduced him to many Asian foods that were unfamiliar to him from his childhood in Nicaragua.
Among his favorite new introductions are pomegranates and Korean pears. “I had never tried those before,” he said.
The hope, according to Nam, is not only that customers will find and try new foods from different countries but that Saraga can be a part of the diverse community in Indianapolis.
How Saraga began
Starting international megastores isn’t necessarily what the Sung brothers, co-owners of Saraga, envisioned when they moved from South Korea to Indianapolis in the early ’90s.
BJ had run a grocery in South Korea and wanted to expand in a place where there would be more opportunities and less competition. John wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. Both their visions have changed from their initial conception.
The Sungs came to Indianapolis with a total of $40 in their pockets to join their sister who had immigrated years before.They worked in beauty supply shops and other small businesses to save up enough to start a business of their own.
Together, the brothers sold imported handbags out of their truck in the southeastern U.S., often sleeping in their vehicle on the road. They eventually had enough money to rent a flea market stall in Kentucky.
Within five years, they opened a small Korean grocery in Bloomington and named it Saraga.
Sung estimates the town’s Korean population at the time was around 500 people — too small to maintain a business.
In 2005, Sungs expanded their Korean grocery dreams to include food from all 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 Indianapolis’ immigrant communities in the region as a potential for more customers.
For Magda Rodriguez, who moved to Indianapolis last year, Saraga is the place where she has found Puerto Rican snacks like Cameo, a brand of creme sandwich cookies and ingredients to make staples like sofrito, a paste used to season many Puerto Rican dishes. These are hard to find at other grocery stores, even ones that cater to Hispanic communities, she said.
“Most of the places are Mexican,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really hard to find Puerto Rican products.”
Challenges of an international grocery
Deciding which products to carry has been one of Sung’s biggest challenges. Before opening the international grocery in Indianapolis, he was familiar with Korean brands but had a lot to learn with products from other countries. Sometimes, he’d buy items that didn’t sell and be stuck with the inventory. Other times, people don’t find what they’re looking for and choose to shop elsewhere. It’s constant trial and error.
Sung has been a frequent traveler, shopping at markets and looking for new suppliers in major cities from New York to California to stay up to date on the latest trends. Recently, pink pineapples and cranberry beans have made their way into Saraga’s produce shelves as a result of these trips.
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Customers who can’t find familiar and beloved products from a plethora of countries contact Nam to see if Saraga can start carrying it. “We cannot buy one specific item for one person, but more likely, that’s not going to be the case,” Nam said. “If somebody likes it and is asking for it, then there must be a reason.”
After receiving an email requesting a product, Nam takes down the customer’s contact information and starts researching — his first move is always to ask Saraga employees from the country the potential product is made.
“That [asking employees] is the most accurate and fastest,” Nam explained, “We have employees from all over.”
Many employees are first-generation immigrants who have a particular aisle in the store that sells food from home. Castillo, the worker from Nicaragua, was a regular shopper at the store before stopping in to ask for a job two years ago.
Saraga often hires people who speak a little bit of English and another language fluently. This is an asset when speaking to customers and contributes to the mix of languages that can be heard in the store. They bridge communications gaps which arise by hiring bilingual managers who are comfortable in different languages, and with the help of Google Translate.
After consulting with his team, Nam either points customers to similar products Saraga already carries or tries to find a supplier for the product. Recently, he’s been looking into snacks that he’s seen featured on Korean dramas and noodles that were recommended to him by an employee from Nepal.
The foods that are made with products from Saraga are often a fusion of cultures and style. Japanese ramen is mixed with spices and vegetables to make it more like the ramen served in restaurants in the Philippines. Taiwanese dan bing (egg pancakes) are used as taco shells.
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International shopping center to come
Over the years, the store has welcomed small, family-run businesses including international restaurants, a Mexican bakery and others.
Karen-Thai Street Food, a new Thai restaurant opened by the Aye family in June, proudly serves recipes from Thailand and other Asian countries that the Ayes grew up with when they were refugees from Burma. On the other side of the store, La Reyna Bakery sells bread baked from recipes brought from Mexico.
According to Laura Soriano, whose family owns La Reyna Bakery, working within the international market means that “different customers can come inside and give a try of what we have going on.”
“If it were to be located at a different location,” Soriano said, “we know for a fact that only Hispanic people are probably going there because our bread is Hispanic.”
Soon, Saraga will be expanding to Castleton. The new location will be anchored by a Saraga grocery store in the 101,000-square-foot former Target at 8448 Center Run Drive and surrounded by international restaurants and clothing stores in the strip mall next door.
“We’re making an international shopping center,” said Nam. According to Nam, the market will carry more European groceries and health foods. They also have plans to open an international food court inside and are still seeking out small businesses to fill the nearby strip mall. They currently plan to open in March 2022.
The selection at Saraga is expanding, but the mission is the same. From white sapote requested by customers from New Zealand to the new restaurants coming soon, Saraga will keep bringing people from all over the world together, one product at a time.
Contact IndyStar Pulliam Fellow Serena Puang at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @SerenaPuang