When Kroger closed its Linden store last year, it created a food desert in the north Columbus neighborhood. Many residents suddenly lost access to affordable and healthy food - that is, until Saraga International Grocery opened a store in the Northern Lights Shopping Center last month.
“I’m actually really glad that it’s opened," says Mary Quaboh, who both works and shops at Saraga International Grocery.
She moved to the U.S. from Ghana several years ago.
"I live like right behind the building and I’m an African too, and there’s not really much African stores super close by, so having this as an international store is really, really helpful for my family actually,” Quaboh says.
Saraga opened its first store in 2013 on Morse Road. Its new store in Cleveland Avenue is just a few miles away.
Owner John Sung, 54, is an immigrant from South Korea who came to the U.S. three decades ago. He and his brother started a grocery store in Bloomington, Indiana after they dropped out of college. That store’s success led him to expand into Indianapolis, and then to Columbus.
“Really doing well,” Sung says. “We have a lot of customers coming for special offers. Actually, they love it and everywhere I go, people know me as the owner of the store and they really appreciate what we’re doing there.”
Sung says new immigrants and anyone with an international palette can appreciate Saraga's variety of food.
“We have great produce and seafood, especially live fish and meat,” Sung says. “Not only that, we have a great selection on the grocery. Most people think they can find what they need at one place.”
At the seafood counter, live catfish peer through the glass at the bottom of the fish display. Portia Antwi, 24, is picking out mackarel.
“I like it very well, it’s very nice when you prepare it with stew or soup,” Antwi says. “It’s very nice.”
Sung explains he named his store Saraga because it means "living" in Korean.
“Saraga means living a life,” Sung says. “This is my job, not only money. I feel like this is my mission.”
Grocery aisles separate by continent and region, with rows marked for Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, African, European and American foods.
Saraga also includes several tiny restaurants. The Morse Road store was the first location of the popular Nepalese food stand Momo Ghar, which specializes in dumplings. (Momo Ghar was even visited by Guy Fieri on an episode of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" last year.)
The Cleveland Avenue store will soon be home to restaurants of its own, including Mexican and Asian food stands.
Sung says business continues to grow about 16% a year at his first store on Morse Road. He’s not sure, though, how quickly sales will develop in Linden.
“Since Cleveland Avenue store is so close to Morse Road, it’s the same market, it’s only three miles apart so I don’t how the effect will be at Morse Road,” Sung says. “Hopefully we’ll still growing, but we’re very positive.”
Sung is enthusiastic about Saraga's future, but he's frustrated as work continues at an unfinished store on South Hamilton Road, across from Eastland Mall. When it's finished, it will be Sung’s third Saraga location in Columbus, and the largest at 100,000 square feet.
“We have a barbershop, cellphone place, bakery, ice cream, Mexican food, African food, and South American food,” Sung says.
During our interview, several hopeful shoppers like Sue Helber came to the Hamilton Road store, thinking it was open because of an erroneous Facebook post.
“There’s a sign out there says opening soon, and it’s been out there for ages,” Helber says. “I said, 'When do they open?'”
Sung says he understands shoppers are anxious.
“A lot of people mention that this area needs grocery, which is correct, so we take a chance,” Sung says. “We start building this store. Unfortunately, it takes so long.”
The problem, Sung explains, is in the back of the store where trucks move merchandise. To help them avoid getting stuck in the mud, he added gravel. But city officials said that was illegal and would block rainwater from soaking into the soil and potentially cause flooding.
Now, Sung has been working on a new site plan to comply with city regulations. He plans to meet with the city in early July.
He hopes soon, all nine cash registers at the Hamilton Road store will be ringing up sales.
“It’s over three years now,” Sung says. “We pay rent. It’s kind of hard, really hard. All of the profit we make from Morse is pouring here.”
Editor's Note: This article originally indentified the location of the new Saraga International Grocery as Great Northern Shopping Center, it will actually be located in the Northern Lights Shopping Center.