Elda M. Devarie was a single mother living far from her native Puerto Rico when she decided to start her own business.
Looking to support her infant son, Devarie turned to what she knew — groceries. She had left a marketing job at a Puerto Rican supermarket chain to follow her military husband to the United States, but the marriage had ended and she saw opportunity in distributing ethnic food to Hispanic-run corner stores in Maryland and Virginia.
More than two decades later, ethnic food has gone mainstream and Devarie's Baltimore-based EMD Sales Inc. has benefited. The international food vendor has grown to $37.5 million in sales, supplying the mid-Atlantic's biggest supermarket chains with more than 2,600 items imported from 17 countries. The coconut water and Sriracha sauce EMD imports today is as likely to be sold by a specialty market as by a traditional grocer.
"People are no longer so afraid of trying new things...," said Devarie, 53, EMD's president and CEO. "What used to be exotic is mainstream and available."
She credits the Internet and TV food channels for opening people's minds to other foods and tastes.
"The world has become one world, rather than all of these different groups of people," she said.
About 43 percent of grocery shoppers list a "good selection of ethnic foods" as important in choosing a primary grocery store, according to the Food Marketing Institute. The percentage increases if the question is posed to millennials, Hispanics, Asians and other non-white shoppers, groups that are growing or growing in buying power, the institute said.
"We continue to see a strong and growing interest in global foods, intertwined with a broader desire for exploration and variety throughout the week, not just on special occasions," said David Feit, vice president of Bellevue, Wash., food and beverage consultant The Hartman Group Inc. "Eating ethnic is one way Americans still like to get this variety."
Americans are eating ethnic not just at restaurants but at home, Feit said. Two-thirds of the time someone eats Thai, Indian or Mexican-style meals or snacks, "it's coming from a retailer, not from a restaurant," he said.
EMD, which moved to Baltimore from Landover in 2011, distributes more than 1,000 items to Giant Food stores and also supplies Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, Safeway, Food Lion, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Wegmans, Weis, Hmart and hundreds of independent merchants. More than 100 EMD employees work from a warehouse on Washington Boulevard in Baltimore's Pigtown neighborhood and at a wine and spirits distribution center in Virginia.
A walk down the wide aisles of the Baltimore warehouse is a culinary trip across the globe. Stacked high are boxes of plantain chips, coconut water, sweet olive oil tortas, red Salvadoran beans, Central American style sour cream, Jasmine rice and, one of the biggest sellers of all, tortillas — whole wheat, multi-grain, corn and fat free — which long ago crossed over from Mexican dishes to mainstream wraps and sandwiches.
"It's no longer an ethnic product," Devarie said.
Devarie, who helped out in her family's gas station business while growing up in Puerto Rico, studied accounting and marketing in college. She got an entry level job as a price checker at Grande Supermarkets in Puerto Rico, paying visits to competitors to compare prices. She rose to assistant to the marketing director.
When she followed her then husband to the U.S., she found it difficult to find a job as they moved around between Staten Island, N.Y., Cape May, N.J., Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Washington, so she started a small international food brokerage in New Jersey in 1989.
After the divorce, she settled in Anne Arundel County in 1991 and took her business in a new direction. She started small. She bought a yellow Ryder truck and would drive to New York on weekends to buy food, then make delivers in the Washington suburban area during the week.
After about four years, she got her first big break with Giant Food when a broker for Nestle put her in touch with executives at the Landover-based chain. She was invited in to give a presentation about her business and how she could help expand Giant's international food offerings. After speaking about the growth she saw in international food retailing, she was astonished at how receptive the chain was to her pitch.
"It's one of those times — they're going to buy products from me?" she recalled thinking.
She became a distributor and involved in creating the chain's store-within-a store concept for international foods, which was tested at a few stores then spread chainwide.
"There was a recognition on Giant's part that the demographics in the Washington-Baltimore area were changing, and we needed to change as well," said Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman. With Devarie, the chain saw a way to "bring on a supplier connected with the Latino market."
At the time, Giant carried only the established Goya brand and its limited assortment of products. Tortillas were not among them.
"They wanted others brands and didn't want to compete," Devarie said. "We went and looked for products that were nostalgic for the [Latino] community but that Goya did not offer," such as plantain chips and Inca Kola from Peru.
EMD has since expanded its reach globally and now imports products from Asia, Africa and countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Jamaica.
International foods will continue to be a focus for Giant, Miller said.
"There are a lot of cultures, and more exposure to international food, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington market," Miller said. "It is a very diverse community and becoming more diverse. We... are very attuned to that and the customer base."
While millennials and non-white shoppers are fueling demand for ethnic categories in supermarkets, said Feit, the food consultant, "at the same time, we're also seeing an increased reliance on multiple channels. People are able to fill their needs for ethnic and specialty foods in increasingly more places."
That's likely one of the reasons that well over half of the grocery retailers in the Food Marketing Institute's survey this year listed emphasis on ethnic products as a competitive strategy, said Heather C. Garlich, a spokeswoman for the organization.
"Our food retailers are telling us that they're putting a strong emphasis on ethnic foods in order to differentiate themselves," she said.