In Union Square, Market Basket lures crowds with bargains and batatas—and complements the neighborhood’s smaller international food stores.
Text by June Carolyn Erlick | Photography by Caleb Cole

The produce department at the Market Basket just outside Union Square reflects the diversity of the store’s clientele: shoppers browse through daikon, chayote, ñame, eddoes, tomatillos and batatas, as well as a wide assortment of low-priced tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and other produce. Throughout the store, a poetic plethora of varied products—such as halawa, guarana, yerba mate, sofrito, polenta and potato gnocchi—awaits eager buyers.

Market Basket is nearly always full, but on a Saturday morning, the activity reaches a crescendo. A woman from Ghana and her 4-year-old daughter look over the root vegetables. A local musician who rehearses nearby buys flour to make a cake. Four Salvadoran shoppers compare cheese brands, while a lanky woman in a brightly flowered headscarf puts a jar of Marshmallow Fluff into her basket. Carts flood the aisles, and store staff with names as diverse as the shoppers are constantly stocking the shelves.

Devang Bhatt and his new wife, Lamisa Parkar (photo on the right), love Market Basket for its inexpensive produce. The couple shop here about every two weeks and also frequent Little India, a market next door. Here, the newlyweds, who live in Beacon Hill, can speak their native language with the shopkeepers. “We get anything and everything Indian, including spices, frozen Indian dishes, fresh produce, incense, Indian beers, Indian basmati rice,” Bhatt explains. “Even though some of these items may be found in Market Basket, like rice, the brands we grew up with are seen only at Little India.” He adds that certain spices, like turmeric and ginger powder, are much better here than the “generic, tasteless and nonfragrant” brands you find at supermarkets.

Like many who come to Union Square from Somerville and beyond, Bhatt and Parker are two-destination shoppers. Contrary to what one might think, the large supermarket serves as a magnet for local stores. Many shoppers visit Market Basket and their favorite ethnic store. Union Square, with more than a half dozen international markets ranging from Indian to Korean to Brazilian, offers rich opportunities for ethnic shoppers and adventurous cooks.

Countless Market Basket shoppers have discovered that shopping throughout Union Square can be an international culinary treasure hunt. “I just went to La Internacional for the first time and found the kind of Colombian chocolate you melt,” says Rob Karl, a Princeton professor from the Boston area on sabbatical and living in Somerville. “Now that I’m back in the neighborhood, I go to Market Basket. I’d take the produce over Shaw’s, and I’ve had luck with the meats. My sister even found Alpina Arequipe [a Colombian milk sweet similar to dulce de leche] there last month!”

Karl is lucky. He lives close enough to Market Basket that he doesn’t have to jockey for a spot in the 203-car parking lot that’s almost always full.

The Somerville store is one of 63 in the Massachusetts-based DeMoulas Market Basket chain, which, according to Supermarket News, is known for “high-volume sales and market-leading prices.”

“We like to think our customer service is exceptional,” says Somerville store director Mike Dunleavy (photo on the right), who has been at this location for 18 years. “We like to say hello, to thank customers for shopping here and to get the customers the products they want.” He pays special attention to customer requests; new products are being added constantly, mostly on the basis of requests at the customer service department.

Dunleavy, who began his career with Market Basket in high school 33 years ago, says the store with its 350-400 employees attracts shoppers from Somerville, Cambridge, Arlington, Medford—and further—because it is the closest Market Basket to Boston.

Says Alysia Abbott, a Cambridge-based writer, “Market Basket is always a little insane and crowded—and there are so many choices. It makes me happy to be with people who are excited about getting such bargains.”

Nora Cabrera, who owns La Internacional Food with her son Byron (photo on the right), says, “Many come for Market Basket and they come by here. Even if one wants to be American, you can’t eat hamburgers and hot dogs all day long,” she says, with an ample smile lighting up her face.

Cabrera’s customers come from as far away as Brockton, Malden and Revere; many of her patrons are Haitian, but others hail from Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. The shop also attracts American customers searching for unusual ingredients such as bottled loroco flowers and djon djon mushrooms, which are used by Haitian cooks to flavor rice.

Even though it’s general retail wisdom that larger stores drive out smaller ones, James Tillotson, Tufts University professor of food policy and international business, says the supermarket magnet effect is not all that uncommon. The critical mass of markets—big and small—in Union Square attracts customers from a broad geographic area.

“Americans are very experimental in what they eat, and immigrants when they come to a strange land want the flavors from back home,” Tillotson says. “People shop around. So if the supermarket and the specialty shop are serving different needs, shoppers might go to both.”

In addition to food specialties, additional services such as phone cards and music or clothes from the home country might increase sales “if the services are done well,” Tillotson adds.

One local store that offers such services is Pão de Açúcar (photo below), a Brazilian market that offers Brazilian DVDs, a fax service and key duplication. It also features a hot Brazilian buffet that fills the store with scents of freshly cooked dishes like feijoada.

“Our customers are 75 percent Brazilian, and they come from a distance—Allston, Lowell, even Connecticut,” says owner Francisco Silva. “They usually go to Market Basket beforehand, but they come here to find something different, things they can’t get at Market Basket.” He stocks Brazilian herbs, cosmetics and soaps. Among his best-selling items are various brands of frozen pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread made with manioc flour.

Jahangir Kabir, who owns nearby WellFoods Plus with his wife, Rokeya, is proud of the fact that he can even beat out Market Basket in price on a few items. He holds up an 11-pound box of Medjool dates, which he sells for $43. “Come Ramadan, I sell mountains of these.” His customers are originally from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Algeria, Indonesia, the Philippines and the United States and also include Kosher customers who purchase halal meat. Huge fish called lakka and an abundance of goat and other halal meat are among the specialty offerings not found in the neighboring supermarket.

Down the road at Market Basket, dinnertime shoppers are scooping up hot rotisserie chicken at $3.99. The loudspeaker announces a sale on boneless chuck steak at $2.99. Wilson Moreira, a casually dressed Somerville housepainter originally from Minas Gerais, Brazil, stands in the express line with three packages of frozen quail and six cans of coconut milk in his basket. The quail—which he doctors with Brazilian spices and liquid smoke–is for a barbecue tonight on his gas grill. The coconut milk is destined for his wife’s birthday cake.

Moreira says he often visits smaller local markets, but tonight he’s in a hurry. “That’s the beauty of the express line!” he declares before darting out into the mayhem of the Market Basket lot.

June Carolyn Erlick, editor-in-chief of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, is the author of Disappeared, A Journalist Silenced and A Gringa in Bogotá, Living Colombia’s Invisible War. A Somerville resident, she shops at Market Basket and several of the area’s ethnic stores.