Everywhere you look in Saigon Market there are signs this is not the typical grocery store found in North Carolina.
The narrow aisles are packed with bulk-sized bags of curry powder and turmeric, jars of homemade kimchi are in the refrigerator and a crate of fertilized duck eggs or “balut” sits across from the register.
For more than two decades, Lan Washington and her family have been bringing Wilmington these items and other spices, meats, produce and specialty foods from around the world.
“I should call it ‘International Market,’” said Lan, 65, pointing to products from almost every continent.
There’s a duality to Saigon Market, which offers adventurous eaters exotic selections but also serves as a rare collection of familiar foods for those far from home.
For the latter group, it can be comforting to see the products they grew up with, even those that are less than adored, said Lan’s son, Charlie.
“A lot of people from Jamaica see we have cod liver oil, and they’re like, ‘Oh I had to drink that when I was little! My parents gave me a teaspoon every day. It’s nasty,’” he said. “It’s just what you grew up with, and it’s a little bit of home that people enjoy being around.”
The search for a taste of home inspired Lan Washington to launch Saigon Market in 1994 in a Chinese restaurant on Market Street.
Born in Vietnam’s former imperial city, Lan Washington moved from Hue to a town outside of Saigon as a child. In the early 1970s she met a man serving in the U.S. Army, and the couple moved to Rochester, New York, where they were soon married.
To Lan Washington, who was 24 years old when she arrived in the United States, everything was different in her new home. Even the chicken didn’t taste the same but she quickly began adapting, earning her driver’s license, learning more English each day and making friends with other Asian Americans.
The couple and their two children moved across the country with her husband’s job before landing in Wilmington in 1989. Lan Washington became fast friends with Solange Thompson who owned Mr. Chopstix on Market Street and was soon in the restaurant with her every day.
“Every day I go to her store and helped her out. First she said, ‘Well come two days and roll the egg rolls for me.’ I ended up seven days a week with her,” Lan Washington recalled.
At the time, there wasn’t an Asian grocery store in the southeastern part of the state where Lan Washington could find the staples of Vietnamese cooking.
“There was no store here, so my friend and I had to drive all the way Raleigh to get the food we needed,” she said.
Thompson encouraged Lan Washington to open a local store, but she was reluctant because the family moved so often with her husband’s job. Once they decided to stay in Wilmington, she gave the idea a shot and soon took over about 200 square feet of the restaurant, filling a couple of shelves with products she bought from a wholesale market in Washington D.C.
Lan Washington didn’t have any business training except for the afternoons she spent helping her mother run a small store in Vietnam, but she knew Vietnamese cuisine and the products she wanted to offer.
“I know we have to have rice, we have to have noodles, we have to have fish sauce, soy sauce,” she said.
Word about the store spread quickly among Wilmington’s Asian American community.
“Everybody came,” she said. “Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Thai – we eat about the same. We cook a little different, but the food’s about the same.”
Since then the business has continued to grow and now occupies more than 5,000 square feet at 4507 Franklin Ave. The selection has also grown over the years and now includes products from South Asian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Middle Eastern and African cuisines.
With the addition of each regional cuisine, the family relies on customers to point them in the right direction.
“Once you get stuff in, people tell you what they need, what they want. Like, ‘Oh you have this, but you need this to go with it,” Charlie Washington said. “You just keep building it that way.”
Ordering the store’s roughly 7,000 products and coordinating their delivery with about 15 different distributors has always been the one of the major challenges of running the store.
Lan Washington has had products caught up in customs for months and dealt with distributors reluctant to include Wilmington in their delivery route. (In fact, she still makes weekly trips to Raleigh to pick up a shipment of fresh produce for the store.)
Both Charlie and Lan agree the best part of the business is the people.
Some customers like John Yeung, chef of Szechuan 132, have been coming in the store almost every day for 22 years to pick up items for the restaurant and his home.
“If you get Asian food, you come here,” he said.
Other customers are looking to branch out, trying recreate a meal they’ve tasted while traveling or perhaps seen on the Food Network.
“Some people still are meat and potatoes, but very few,” Charlie Washington said.
The Washingtons enjoy helping customers find the best ingredients and offering suggestions about new products and recipes.
While Lan Washington has become a sort of encyclopedia for different dishes over the years, she isn’t a stickler for authenticity.
“Sometimes I tell people just cook what you like,” she said.
Today the store still reaches many of its customers through word of mouth, with help from referrals from restaurants like Catch, Yosake, Indochine and others who buy from the store, Charlie said.
While a growing number of mainstream grocery stores have started carrying Asian foods, Lan Washington said her store’s broad selection and competitive prices help the store fill a niche in Wilmington.
It’s a niche the Washingtons plan to keep filling for years to come.
“Most people, they tell me they’re open for five or six years, and they quit. Too much work and too little money. I enjoy it, so I don’t care,” she said. “People think I’m crazy, but I don’t care.”
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