Local News

Niche markets keep groceries on the table for immigrants

SEBRING - Frozen goat head. Pig skins. Cow feet. This isn't Publix, where exotic means 100 feet of shelf space for Asian, British, kosher and Hispanic groceries. Sebring, Lake Placid and Avon Park have a half-dozen ethic grocers. La Hacienda is convenience store on Pine Street in downtown Sebring with a grill in the back and shelves full of Barcel chips where Lays would normally be, or Bimbo mini-muffins in place of an American brand like Hostess. But there are also jars of Yaesta! pickled sugar cane, $4.99, and signs in Spanish. The interior paint is solid orange, a wall color not usually found in American groceries.
Avon Park's luncheon hot spot is Taqueria Merlo, where Lt. Andy Marcy has parked the fire engine long enough to grab a few pounds of steak strips already mixed with green peppers, onions and Mexican spices. It's fajita night at Avon Park Fire Department. "We eat here all the time," said firefighter Alan Givens. He rattles off the menu from memory: huevos rancheros for breakfast (two eggs, ranch sauce, rice and beans). And tostadas for lunch (a taco on a flat hard shell). Marjorie Sewenn, who has her own Jamaican convenience store, stopped by Merlo's on Wednesday for the butcher counter, which seems to be the busiest segment of the grocery. "They have good meat here," Mary Richardson said. "It's very clean." Both the quality and prices seem to be as good as the superstore a few miles north. The meat, she points out, is attractively displayed on four-foot long aluminum trays. Instead of picking packages of once-frozen, now-thawed pork chops, for instance, she can choose which and how many chops she wants. Or chopped tripe, or steak-sized slices of cow's feet. "We cut the meat the way they like it," said owner Baldemar Merlo, who has been there for 16 years. "We started downtown, but it just wasn't large enough." He built the half-cafe, half-grocery store at the west end of Main Street, where cold beer is in the cooler but it's not allowed in the cafe. "I saw that in New York," he said, "It killed the business. People don't like to see it. Those businesses were only open one or two years." Just a few feet from where customers wait for take-out orders, a one-woman assembly line makes tortillas: a round ball of masa ground corn the size of a roma tomato goes into a press, and it comes out a perfectly flat and round. She drops the white circle onto an electric griddle and as it puffs into a tortilla, she makes another. With her bare hands, she reaches under one of the 12 tortillas on the grill and flips it. Then she makes another, pausing only to wash her hands and clean the machine. Across U.S. 27 from Home Depot is a little-seen shopping center, and in the back of that mall there is Aston Caribbean Foods. You've almost got to know where it is to know where it is. "I've been here three years," said Aston Waugh. It's probably the only store in town that sells hard dough Jamaican bread and head cheese (pickled, jellied and spiced head meat). Jamaican bulla and bammy are also popular. Waugh restocks every two weeks in Miami. There's a box of fresh yams and sweet potatoes - yellow roots and tubers that are similar to American variety seen in Sweetbay, for instance. There's soursop - the frozen pulp of a large white fruit. And where else to get frozen goat's head? gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828