Internationals in search of a taste of home or Americans wanting to expand their palates with ethnic flavors don’t have to travel far.
An array of international markets scattered throughout Northwest Florida act as small embassies for the cultures they serve.
Destin Euro Market on Airport Road is just one of many international markets that have become fixtures in local communities.
Owners Tony and Lana Daniel, both of European descent, said over the past 20 years the international community has expanded tremendously, making the need for international markets even greater.
“We really, really, really miss our foods,” said Lana, who moved to the United States from the Ukraine in the 1990s. “We see people’s eyes just light up when they walk in. I see their smiles and it’s just the most amazing feeling because I feel like I’m doing something to help people just like me who miss our foods, our culture and the little things we haven’t seen in a long time.”
At first glance, Northwest Florida may not seem like a cultural melting pot. However, once people step inside markets where English is rarely used and unfamiliar aromas flood their senses, it becomes apparent the region has become more ethnically diverse.
In Fort Walton Beach, Hispanics and Asians make up about 12.8 percent of the population, according to 2014 data from city-data.com. In Destin, the Hispanic population is larger than the African American population, at 9.2 percent.
Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said it’s exciting to have more diverse businesses, especially those that are taking care of minorities.
“We have begun in the past few years to really see a diversification of our population,” Corcoran said. “Obviously, the economics of the community are warranting that there is a need for these markets because more of them are opening in our area.”
‘It’s a joy’
The shelves at Destin Euro Market were packed full of items Tuesday from more than 10 eastern European countries, including Hungary, Poland, the Ukraine and Bulgaria. Meats, candies, breads, cheeses and wines are some of the most sought-after items, the Daniels said.
Lana said many customers regularly travel across state lines to shop there.
“We have a lot of people who drive from Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans, Tallahassee and even people from Tennessee have come down just to come to this store,” Lana said. “It’s just amazing. Every day I come here it’s a joy.”
Gyöngyi Ridenour, a first-time customer from Hungary, said it was a good feeling to enter a store and find all of the delicacies from back home.
“I just moved here from California,” Ridenour said as she checked out. “I’m making some cabbage rolls filled with turkey tonight. My husband loves them and he is American.”
The Daniels said the market isn’t just for internationals. The couple enjoy welcoming in Americans and teaching them about international foods and how to prepare them.
“Once they try it they keep coming back,” Tony said.
Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines
The Asian community in the area also is widely represented by local markets. Most are in easy-to-miss strip malls along busy roads.
Asian Market at the corner of Beal Parkway and Hughes Street is one of them.
Inside, the shelves are lined with hundreds of Asian sauces, noodles, rice and seaweed paper. Toward the back of the warehouse-style store is a produce section filled with Asian vegetables and fruits like Chinese cabbage, lotus roots and jackfruit.
Faruk Khan, one of the store’s owners from Bangladesh, said he purchases his vegetables from a Vietnamese woman who grows them locally.
Khan, whose English is limited, said most Asian residents in the region are from Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
In Fort Walton Beach, Asians make up 3.3 percent of the population, according to city-data.com.
“We also have a lot of customers from Korea and Japan,” Khan said. “We have more than 200 customers here every day.”
‘A hidden gem’
On Beal Parkway next to Main Brew Coffee, Supermarket Mi Gente is said to be one of the first specialty markets in Fort Walton Beach to cater to the Latin American community.
Herman Marquez, 14-year owner of Mi Gente (My People), said thanks to military support and a growing Hispanic community, he is expanding his market to include more foods and is retiring his food truck for a restaurant similar to Chipotle Mexican Grill.
“This place is kind of one of those hidden gems in Fort Walton Beach,” said Natee Williams, a customer who stopped by Thursday to buy churros. “I come here a couple times a week. The restaurant (food truck) is really good. It’s all authentic, good food at a reasonable price.”
Marquez said what attracts customers to the store, even though it’s less than a mile from Walmart Supercenter, is its fresh, never-frozen meat and authentic Latin American candies and specialty products.
“We have products not only from Mexico, but Central America and South America and Brazil,” he said. “We don’t cater to just Hispanics, but everyone in our community.”
Marquez said after he opened his store in 2004, several Latin American businesses began opening in Fort Walton Beach. He said the businesses work together to help attract more customers.
“We’ve been getting more Latin people here, so it’s been great,” Marquez said. “About 30 percent of our customers, though, are military. It’s been great to have their support.”
Corcoran said he hopes more people will shop at the international markets.
“It will be exciting if others who aren’t from that culture start promoting them,” he said.