Hispanic food store to close in Dec. to make room for supermarket Many patrons upset at losing shop in Oakland Mills center

October 26, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Tucked into the corner of the Oakland Mills village center, Connie Popvich found a little piece of her native land, Mexico.

A storefront shop, La Tienda (Spanish for "the store"), sells the Santo Domingo brand of strawberry sodas she drank as a child. And the tamales she eats every Christmas. And the Ibarra brand of powdered sweet chocolate she mixes with milk.

"These are things I haven't seen in years. You can't just find plantains and chorizos in the nearby Giant or Safeway," she said of the variety of banana and spicy sausages. "This place brings us home."

Linda Glaeser opened the specialty food shop in June when the Giant closed. She found an eager market among Howard County's booming Hispanic population, and her store is one of the few businesses in the aging village center making money.

Rouse Co. officials will close her shop, the only Hispanic food store in Columbia, in December to make room for the 42,000-square-foot Metro Food Market that is replacing Giant.

Rouse official Wayne Christmann, who oversees the village centers, said he hopes to move the store to another village center. But the prospect of losing the shop in Oakland Mills -- home to most of the county's Hispanics -- is upsetting to many.

"It was a little well-kept secret, and now that people are aware that it exists it may be closed. It's really unfortunate," said Gina Giacomantonio of Oakland Mills. La Tienda "is something you just don't find anywhere in Columbia."

Leaders in the Hispanic community say La Tienda is the only ethnic food store in the county. To get similar products, many Howard County residents said they must drive to Silver Spring, Washington or Baltimore. Some have relatives in their home country mail them nonperishable foods.

Spanish-speaking immigrants are the county's fastest growing ethnic group, U.S. Census Bureau data show. Community leaders say Oakland Mills village is witnessing that growth more than any other area in the county.

Howard County's Hispanic population grew by 43 percent from 1990 to 1994 as the county's overall population grew by 14 percent.

Although some county schools and the Oakland Mills village board have hired Spanish speakers to help newcomers adjust, no one offered anything for the palate until Glaeser came along.

"There's a lot of awareness of the diversity of Columbia and Howard County, but we don't do anything for them," said Giacomantonio, a volunteer at the nonprofit Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), based in Howard County. "There's a lot of wealthy people and a lot of gourmet shops, but nothing to target the diverse cultures' greatest offerings -- food."

Glaeser, a Spanish major in college who has lived in Oakland Mills for nine years, has helped dozens of her neighbors who didn't speak English well read tax forms, doctors' letters or notes from their children's schools.

After hearing Hispanic residents complain of driving to the city to buy Latin American food -- a root vegetable called yucca, plantains and masa, the corn flour used to make tortillas -- she quit her full-time job as a computer programmer with the federal government and opened the store.

"Because many of them don't have transportation, it is very difficult for them to get to Baltimore or Silver Spring to buy their foods," Glaeser said. "Starting a store here gives them the opportunity to get the food they want, the food from their countries, closer to their homes."

Now she brings the fresh fruits, vegetables and canned goods from wholesalers in Silver Spring to Columbia. Her popularity grew as word spread among Spanish-speaking residents and others with adventurous taste buds from Caribbean islands and Africa.

"It was an experiment bringing in [La Tienda], but she's meeting a certain need," Christmann said. "A grocery store's Hispanic section is Old El Paso [products]. La Tienda is much more."

Few of the items on shelves in the store resemble those in a typical grocery store.

Sugar cane leans against the store's entrance. Black and white guavas, figs and avocados sit on shelves. Bunches of dark red guajillos -- hot peppers -- used in chili or stews go for $2 a bag.

The store offers a sand-colored bag of spice mix, Especie Natural -- garlic, pumpkin seeds and bay leaves -- that Salvadorans use to make tamejeles. The pounded yams popular among Nigerians are for sale. Cactus leaves that Mexicans cook in a stew are also much-sought-after hair conditioner for Africans.

"This place is an institution," Panamanian Enrique Medina said in Spanish. "These are the foods and ingredients that we need. It reminds us of our country."

Isatu Noubibou, who is from Liberia, said the store has saved her time as she shops for her restaurant, Soko's Kitchen on Oakland Mills Road.

"We've been here for six years, and we've always had to drive two or three times a week for 45 minutes to a hour to get stuff we needed," Noubibou said. "Now we can get it all within a five-minute drive."

Even with a big grocery store coming to Oakland Mills, many are afraid those kinds of foods will no longer be available in Columbia if La Tienda closes for good.

Libby Arcia, executive director of the Centro de la Comunidad in Baltimore, said, "If there's not a lot of competition from big stores offering foods for this specialized audience, her audience is going to be captive. People want to buy products from their country."

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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