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International grocery stores reflect diverse flavor of The Woodlands

October 5, 2018

For those working and living in a foreign country, many find themselves seeking the comforts of home in their kitchen.

Not including the international sections found at local grocery stores like Kroger, H-E-B and Randall’s, The Woodlands boasts five or so specialty stores that sell delicacies from Latin America, Europe and Asia.

Wanda McCloskey, owner of the Yun Loy Asian Market said it hasn’t always been that way. When McCloskey and her family moved to Houston from New York in 2013, they found a niche to fill in The Woodlands.

“This side of town didn’t have an Asian grocery store,” McCloskey said.

A decade ago, if a person wanted ube — a kind purple yam native to southeast Asia — or jackfruit, a toddler-sized pod fruit gaining popularity in the United States, they would have to travel 30 miles south to Houston’s Chinatown, or even further out to Sugar Land or Katy.

A year after their arrival in Southeast Texas, McCloskey’s family opened Yun Loy in the far south of the Township. The market is a family-owned and operated pan-Asian grocery store with a butcher section and a weekend buffet. Those two staples are supplemented by aisles stocked with assorted noodles, teas, milk tea, soy and aloe drinks and specialities, like mooncakes during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival season.

“It’s been going well,” McCloskey said. “People come here and say, ‘Wow I can get this in The Woodlands, I don’t have to go to Bellaire.’”

Although the store mainly caters to Asians and Asian-Americans, every so often, residents of other ethnicities and nationalities walk into Yun Loy looking to try something new, or looking for a product they had while traveling or working abroad.

“None of (the food) is unusual to us,” McCloskey said. “And we love to show people our food.”

Gil Staley, CEO of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, said as the number of multi-national companies with offices in The Woodlands grows, so does the need for international fare.

“It brings a level of comfort to have their own foods and culture available here,” Staley said.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, almost 20 percent of The Woodlands’ residents are foreign-born — of them, more than half come from Latin America, a quarter come from Asia and about 20 percent moved to the township from Europe.

Demographics firm Esri Data put The Woodlands’ diversity index — the likelihood that any two people in the population chosen at random are born in two different countries — at 48 percent in 2017. The number, Staley said, is a 10 percent rise from 2008. And, by 2025, the diversity index of The Woodlands is estimated to be 53 percent.

“We’re seeing the diversity here, no doubt,” Staley said. “It’s really growing with the number of truly global companies we have doing business here.”

At home and abroad

Although the online British goods store Goodwood’s British Market ships nationwide, there is a great advantage to being based in The Woodlands, owner Richard Goodlad said.

“If we’re distributing British food across America, we’re right in the middle of it,” Goodlad said. “And we’re in a port city, so we bring things in through the Port of Houston and distribute it.”

Goodlad moved to the area almost four decades ago and has lived in The Woodlands since its inception. Although the entire greater Houston area offers similar benefits in terms of proximity to his shoppers, Goodwood’s is based in the township because the community is conducive to a small business, he said.

The shop caters to Britons abroad living in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California — anywhere, Goodlad said, essentially anywhere with an internet connection. With a few clicks, a person can get anything from Radox body wash to Double Devon Cream and Heinz baked beans delivered to their door from the shop’s warehouse on Sawdust Road. But the 78,000 British in the greater Houston area don’t serve as his primary customer base — Anglophiles do.

“I don’t cater to (Brits),” Goodlad said. “We cater to Americans.”

With 110,000 likes on Facebook, 10,000 followers on Instagram and a mailing list of 69,000, the 27-year-old company has built a devoted following and hundreds of loyal shoppers. And, Goodlad said, keeping storefront shopping to minimum helps keep the overhead down, reducing the price of the imported goods, which can often reach $4 for a can of beans.

McCloskey said the demand for international goods close to home is high in The Woodlands, and with diverse companies making their home in the Township, come opportunities to savor diverse cultures.

“We have wonderful customers,” McCloskey said. “More and more people are looking to mix cultures, and they come (to Yun Loy) to do it.”

mrincon@chron.com

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