They sit in out-of-the-way locations with parking lots big enough for only a few cars.
Many times, a motorist will drive by without even knowing they are there.
They have no corporate logos emblazoned on their shopping carts, because they don’t have any carts.
While supermarket chain stores have 10 or 15 aisles of food, the international grocery markets in Bowling Green only have four or five.
Robert Antony teaches Chinese history at Western Kentucky University and shops about once a week at international food stores like the Golden Key International Food Market, located just out of sight from Russellville Road.
“There’s a whole lot of different tastes here,” Antony said. “Mainly a lot of things you can’t buy anywhere else.”
The shelves surrounding him held Italian chocolate bars, Sarajevo mineral water and Russian caviar.
“There’s not too many things in here I don’t like,” Antony said. “That’s the problem.”
On this particular Saturday afternoon he paid store owner Lavrentiy Safarov for cheese and yogurt milk.
“The prices are fair for what you get,” Antony said.
Safarov, 65, once worked in Azerbaijan as the director for oil testing expeditions in the Soviet Union. He beams whenever he shows visitors photos of him standing next to one of his oil wells or of his daughter who, with a business degree from the University of Louisville, started the family’s first store in that city.
Safarov began work in Kentucky swinging a blade in a tobacco field from 7 a.m. until night making only $1.75 for his labor.
The Bowling Green Golden Key opened five years ago. Safarov admits he is a little happier working at the store, but he still wants to do more with his life.
He wants to go back to his oil, he said, which stays with him in his heart and mind.
Xiaoqian Wang, a graduate student from Chengdu, China, shops at the Golden Key for cheese and desserts. Safarov refuses to let her leave the store without trying some European chocolate ice cream treats free of charge.
“I have too much American food in my diet,” Wang said. “I have to be careful I don’t eat too much.”
She bought her sweets at the Golden Key but she buys the Chinese vegetables she craves at the Asian Super Market on Broadway Avenue.
“Students from China and Asia are always shopping at the Asian Supermarket,” Wang said.
The Asian Supermarket is a bazaar of products and a barrage of smells.
Woks and vegetable steamers sit on shelves across from freezers packed with whole frozen fish and crabs. The next aisle over has yellow cans of coffee from the Caf? Du Monde in New Orleans sitting next to brews and filters from Vietnam.
On the way in, customers must adapt to the scent mixture of boiling cabbage and blue crabs that still scuttle in a bin in the back of the market.
Asian Supermarket owner An Thai stirs a pot of cabbage, mushrooms, pork skin and squid, which he calls Fire Pot, for the Chinese New Year.
Next to it, on the two-burner stove in the back of the supermarket, a battered pot filled with barbecued duck and bamboo cooks.
He explains to customers how to prepare some traditional Chinese and Vietnamese recipes.
According to Thai, rice is a big seller at the Asian Supermarket.
“The customer depends on it and knows how to enjoy it,” he said.
A whole aisle in the supermarket is devoted to the rectangular plastic packages of rice noodles Thai sells.
In the six months his supermarket has been in business, Thai said he has sold to Western students from all over the United States: California, Washington, New York and New Jersey. They have tried Asian food, Thai said, and they want to cook it for themselves.
“They need to save money,” he said. “They don’t need to spend money at a restaurant all the time.”
Customers also come to the Asian Supermarket to buy the foreign brands they used in their home country.
“They know the brands they tried, and they buy them,” Thai said.
Occasionally, while Thai ‘s talking, he will bark prices to customers or the family member working the one checkout line in the store.
Victor Atalla of Bowling Green, shopping in blue scrubs from his plastic surgery clinic, smiles as he points out the fresh shrimp and squid.
“Never would you find shrimp like that at Kroger,” Atalla said.
Atalla will carry his purchase to his car by hand. The avid Thai and Chinese cook will use the lemon grass, garlic, ginger and shrimp he bought to make stir-fried squid with hot black bean sauce. All told, he will cook for six to eight hours.
“I better get home and get started,” Atalla said.
Reach Hollan Holm at [email protected]