International grocery in Durham surprises customers

By Olivia Barrow
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

Step inside Food World on Lakewood Avenue in Durham, and you’ll immediately register a double take.

Korean native Kwang Sik Lee works the register at Food World, the international grocery store he started when he moved to Durham in 2005. (Staff photo by Olivia Barrow)

Nestled in an unimpressive, slightly neglected parking lot on the outskirts of Northeast Central Durham, the only giveaway that Food World is not your average independent grocery store is the Korean lettering outside the store. A community bulletin board covered with colorful flyers in multiple languages hangs by the automatic doors, welcoming you into a store stocked with a diverse collection of international foods.

Owner Kwang Sik Lee said people from all over Durham shop there. Lee is originally from Korea but moved to Argentina, then New York City and finally Durham.

“My store has something totally different,” he said. “We have a lot more variety.”

For the Southern city slicker, it’s easy to get lost among the new foods stocking the aisles with hand-written price tags under a ceiling hung with flags from 30 different countries. The freeze-dried foods section looks slightly familiar, with off-brand Ramen Noodles catching the eye, but they’re surrounded on all sides by grains, soup mixes, seasonings and teas with foreign labels from at least three different countries.

“I found this empty store and opened here,” Lee said. “We’re open to all kinds of people – oriental, Korean, Japanese, West Indian – we have all kinds of African food.”

The refrigerator aisle, sure it’s got your staples like milk, eggs, yogurt and … sweet pumpkin porridge? Fresh seasonings and vacuum-packed veggies some folks have never heard of stretch for 20 feet past the 24-ounce cans of Bud Light before bumping up against the butter and cheese.

Comfort Tucker buys rice with her brother Fayah Johnson by the African spices aisle at Food World, Durham’s international grocery store run by Korean native Kwang Sik Lee. (Staff photo by Olivia Barrow)

Lee said many African immigrants shop at his store because they have trouble finding their native food anywhere else. Comfort Tucker, a nursing assistant at UNC Hospitals from West Africa, said she shops primarily at Food World.

“It’s got everything I like,” she said, piling frozen okra into her cart as she shopped with her brother Fayah Johnson and his wife Sounita.  “They carry everything we eat where I’m from. It makes me feel happy to stay here. I’ve lived here 11 years.”

Tucker said before Food World came in 2005, it was a lot harder to find the food she likes.

“I appreciate that they think about other people – how we do things,” she said.

Lee said he also ran an international grocery store during the 11 years he lived near the Bronx in New York, and before that for 10 years in Argentina. The store he runs now is much bigger than the Bronx store. He draws on his experience to decide on prices and the selection of foods to offer.

“With my experience I know what’s selling and what’s not selling,” he said. Lee speaks Korean and Spanish fluently and enough English to more than get by.

Carla Hyman, a 39-year-old Durham resident who works at the VA Medical Center, said she has lived in the area for a long time but never had a need to come to the store until she was trying to find an unusual tea her friend gave her.

“I brought the box back trying to find it, and I found it here,” she said.

Hyman said she didn’t even realize how much Food World had to offer, thinking that a smaller city like Durham wouldn’t have such diverse food options.

“We’re just kind of exploring because they have a lot of cool stuff that we’re experimenting with,” she said.

Lee runs the store with his wife. He said he doesn’t need to advertise to bring in customers.

“A lot of people know my store,” he said. “We have a cool product at a low price. That’s the best.”

One thought on “International grocery in Durham surprises customers

  1. I’m new to the triangle area and will plan on checking this store out. I’m african so i’m sure i’ll find good stuff to buy..Thanks for this information!

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