Double Dragon Foods: Good eats, touchy staff

At Double Dragon Foods, at the corner of Maryland and Rice in St. Paul, I encountered something I’ve never previously experienced in any ethnic grocery store: hostility.

In most stores, small or large, the owners are willing—actually, they’re usually delighted—to talk with anyone, even a member of the press, about their store and the foods they carry. Not at Double Dragon.

I’d been wandering around, as usual, taking notes and photos when a large man stopped me. “You can’t take photos without permission of the manager,” he said. “Fine,” I said. Where’s the manager?” He went to find the manager, a young woman named Shing Yang, who asked me what I was doing.

“I write a column for the Twin Cities Daily Planet called Global Groceries,” I explained. “This week, I’m writing about your store.” I suggested that if she were worried, she could do the Google thing and look me up. Instead, she demanded to see my ID. Then she said she’d need to talk with the owner. By this time, five people were surrounding me, all bigger than me. I took notes.

Yang left, she said, to call owner Chu Ku (which was probably difficult because, it turns out, he was in Thailand) and then returned. “He said you can’t take photos,” she told me. She glared at me. It was like trying to cover a politician.

This is all too bad because the store is phenomenal. It’s a large ethnic foods supermarket with products from all five (maybe all six) continents.

tubers

The produce section is probably the biggest customer draw. I saw two long rows of various tubers, from a dozen kinds of potatoes (sweet and otherwise) to vicanna and yampi. There are five kinds of bananas, large bins of sweet and hot peppers, tiato leaves, giant Taiwan cabbages (weighing four pounds and measuring a foot across), and a variety of other fresh greens, all at very good prices. You can even get green tomatoes, a rarity outside of late summer farmers' markets.

cabbages

I bought some fresh kale from the big reduced-for-quick-sale bin for just under two dollars, enough for four large salads.

greens

The meat and fish sections are extensive with at least six kinds of shrimp, whelks in the shell, whole frozen frogs (I wanted to take a photo, but was being watched by management), various innards and outards (intestine and cow skin), and a choice of hot or mild Hmong pork sausage.

fish

In the packaged goods and frozen foods area, you can buy foods from Latin America to the Caribbean to England to Africa to the Middle East and from all around Asia.

welks

There’s an extensive deli section with hot meals, wrapped and ready to go, made on the premises. I tried the something-something with three sides. I’m not sure what it was (no label) but I’d have it again. There was even something else I’d never seen in a grocery store deli: a wonderful Lao fish laab, made with roasted rice powder and cilantro. And, they had boiled peanuts, which I hadn’t been able to find since my trip to South Carolina, after Governor Mark Sanford declared boiled peanuts the state’s official snack food.

If you speak only English, you may have to hunt around to get any questions answered. (I’m assuming that the staff are more receptive if you are not a member of the press.) I wondered how some of the employees communicated with each other. I heard Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindu, Hmong, maybe more. The customers, too, seem to come from around the world.

produce

I was pushing a shopping cart, picking up items to purchase so I could try them at home, when manager Yang returned. “We’ve been getting complaints about you,” she said. “You’ve been bothering the employees.” I hadn’t, I explained, except to try to find someone at the fish counter who could speak English and answer a fish question. And, I pointed out, I was now a customer.

“If you’re shopping, I guess it’s OK,” she said, scowling. “But, don’t ask my employees any more questions. And, don’t take notes.”

Yeah, right.

I hope they let me come back. Maybe I’ll come in disguise.

Read Mary Thoemke's 2008 feature on District 6, the area of St. Paul where Double Dragon Foods is located.

121 Maryland Ave. W.
Saint Paul, MN 55117
(651) 488-9033
POINT(-93.105276 44.97806)

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Stephanie Fox's picture
Stephanie Fox

Stephanie Fox (stephaniefox2 at tcdailyplanet dot net) has a Master's Degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. She moved to Minneapolis of her own free will in 1984.

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Strange

That's a mystifying story.  Never found people in Asian groceries anything but cheeerful and helpful.  Are they afraid their competition is shopping them to steal some business?  I always find Asian stores fascinating. Unless you are a huge fan of the cuisines, you run into so much for which I, at least, have no idea how it is used.  And, of course, huge selections of things like sauces which normal stores stock maybe one brand.  I think the best sequence is to find something you want to cook so that when you go, you are looking for specific ingredients..  I suspect the best place to look for these stores is Frogtown in St Paul.  United Noodle in Seward (Minneapolis) is probably the best west of the Mississippi.

I was surprised, too.

Thanks for reading the article.

I have found people in most ethnic markets friendly and helpful, the same as you have. This was a very strange experience.

I don't necessarily agree with you about 'the best place to go' as far as this column is concerned. United Noodle is a great place (I've shopped there), but I'm looking for more than  ingredients. I'm looking for an experience and an interesting story. I often discover a new immigrant tale – where folks are from, why they came to the Twin Cities (instead of New York, Florida or California,) and why they started to store. Owners will usually talk to me about their customer's favorite foods. They'll talk about their local cricket team. They joke with me and pose for photos.

I'm not sure why I was greeted the way I was but it may have been that this supermarket has a manager and not an owner running the store.That makes a big difference.

Check out some of my previous stories to seem what I mean.

Stephanie Fox

I shop here all the time and

I shop here all the time and have never had the same experience as you. I speak English along with Hmong, but never had an issue getting help from the seafood section where its all Spanish speaking employees. Im glad you mention about the variety of produce and exceptional products the store has to offer, but your comments about staff behavior are overly critical. These are hard working individuals who probably prefers to keep themselves private. Too often, people outside their culture groups have tarnish their community, even "legitimate" people. You have to earn your respect, not be freely given because you have a camera. you should apologize about how you portray these hard working people.

The only person I was

The only person I was critical of was the manager and I just told what happened to me. I had problems communicating with the fish and meat departments and with the people in the deli section but that happens and usually and it just adds to the adventure of finding new foods. And, to be honest, I didn't tell the worst of what happened in order to keep the tone lighter. I am sure there are wonderful people who work there, but what happened is fact. If you read my other stories, you'll see that this was an unusual situation. I didn't go in expecting this, but once it happened, I had to tell the tale.

Thanks for reporting ...

I appreciate the details about the store, Stephanie, and the pros and the cons of your particular visit. I now feel like I know a lot about this store ... plenty to make a decision on whether to swing by sometime or not. That's good reporting, to me.

Asian grocery stores, Mexican grocery stores, USA grocery stores all seem to have their good days and bad days with customer service and interaction. From Kowalski's/Lund's to United Noodle/Shuang Hur you sometimes run into people who are clearly having a bad day or who are skeptical of inquiries (ever ask about *real* seabass?!). And, of course, language between cultures and/or generations can add to frustration. 

Hopefully the article raises awareness about the amazing selection at Double Dragon and also brings up good discussion points at the store (and hopefully others!) regarding customer service. Nothing wrong with asking as a customer OR as an employee, but it'd be helpful if we all felt free to ask/answer without feeling intimated or like we were putting someone 'out'. 

Overall, I appreciate you crusing the city for groceries for me! 

Ask first

As a journalist myself, I always ask as a courtesy before I go into a business that I am doing a story about. It's just professional. Many businesses don't like a person snapping photos of their merchandise without knowing what is going on. I learned the hard way, as a campus news reporter at a local college, that asking is the right way to go. It shows respect toward the owners/managers. Sorry, but I have to side with the business owner on this one.

Create trust and you will get cooperation and a good story

There's probably a reason for this reaction from the store. As a business district, we find that some of our Asian businesses in Little Mekong are weary of strangers poking around because they have had bad experiences in the past, whether it's an unannounced inspection, thieves scoping out their premises and products, or the long line of survey takers and researchers taking up their time with questions. Unfortunate that this happened, but sometimes it helps to call ahead and let the store know that you're a reporter and interested in doing a story that will give them publicity. It's a matter of communication and creating trust. Of course it doesn't excuse the bad reception you got.

Health laws?

Given the range of their products, with some not exactly a staple in the modern American's diet, I wonder if they haven't had some bad run-ins with the health department. So, someone taking notes and photos probably gets them very nervous.   Wouldn't the ideal thing be to have found the manager at the get-go and explained what you were doing, shown your credentials and so on? The manager could have then said no, or been pleasant and shown you around or handled it in any number of ways. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, but at least you could say that you took the high road.  What's the adage? "Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission?" In this case, I'd say asking for permission fwas the better way to go.

If you're taking photographs

If you're taking photographs on private property without permission of the owners, that's trespassing. As a journalist, you had an obligation to notify the management/owners beforehand of your intent and obtain permission before shooting.

It's a bit unfair to then use the ensuing article as a platform to criticize the manager when you're the one who caused the confusion and mistrust. Yes, he probably overreacted, but the burden is on the journalist to make clear what his/her intent is.

This was not a business



This was not a business story. Would you expect a restaurant reviewer to call ahead? If I were reviewing a restaurant and took notes and phots, woud that be tresspassing? No. I'd also like to point out that in all the stories I've done, I've had nothing but positive reactions from the owners and employees until this one. I still love the store, but my informing the manager of what I was doing when she asked me gave her the opportunity to talk with me about the store instead of over reacting. Thanks for reading, though.

A restaurant reviewer doesn't

A restaurant reviewer doesn't disrupt the normal flow of business by taking out a camera and shooting photos. If you had simply gone about your shopping and written about the experience from memory, there would be no issue. Typically, when a news organization shoots photos to accompany a review, the photographer goes after the fact, and after obtaining permission.

Your privilege is showing

The people at this store do not owe you their trust. If you come in snapping away and taking notes without even talking to one person first, it makes complete sense to me that they'd be at least questioning if not outright offended. The writer seems to feel like she's doing these stores a favor by writing about them and therefore she should automatically command respect. While you did not intend to do harm, there is still an "us/them" undercurrent simply because you are a white person entering a space embedded in the immigrant community and then acting as an observer rather than a customer. By the time you asked for permission, the damage had already been done. The fact that they stood their ground I think speaks to their own integrity as professionals. 

You may not agree, but I think it would be interesting to unpack this experience by looking through your own lens of privilege and having some folks from outside your culture talk about how they might have perceived this encounter, with emphasis on the latter, would be much more enlightening than this article itself was. It's cool that you put the spotlight on businesses that reflect the diversity of the Twin Cities, but because you're from outside the cultures represented there, you have to be extra concientious otherwise this column could become nothing more than cultural voyuerism. 

Not Everyone Loves Reporters GG

I am not sure what purpose it serves for this article to point out the store management's hostility toward the Global Groceries reporter in a column that generally seeks to celebrate food diversity.  I think the reporter was demonstrating unprofessionalism first by not contacting the sources and getting permission before showing up and taking pictures and notes, and then writing about it when she didn't get the "oh awesome" response she wanted.  It happens that not everyone is psyched about media or trusts reporters for various reasons.  Does that mean that should be part of a story?  I believe her approach to writing about the exchange was punitive. And sometimes if the source is uncooperative it's not worth pursuing--better to move on to a different source and/or feature.  I'm surprised the editors ran this one as it was written.

I've done more than a dozen

I've done more than a dozen Global Groceries so far and this is the first time I had this reaction. In every other store, large or small, I wandered around taking notes and photos in order to get a feel of the place. Then I'd talk with the owner and every other time I was welcomed. People would tell me their immigrant story, why they started their store. They shared stories or their champion cricket team or stories about their kids. They posed for photos and would give me recipes for their favorites. So, this new experience is certainly part of the story.

I hate to have to keep saying this, but please read some other Global Groceries stories to get the idea of the focus of this column. Thanks for reading.

Stephanie, I love what you do

Stephanie, I love what you do and have always enjoyed your columns.  They've moved me to try new things.  I consider myself your ideal reader.  But just because you've had lovely experiences in the past from unannounced visits doesn't mean you can't learn something from this one.  Call ahead and get permission.  It's the right thing to do as a reporter and it demonstrates to the business owner(s) that you respect their time, too.  I believe this whole situation could have been prevented with better communication from you up front.  Think about it.  If you were running a grocery store, how would you feel about being surprised with a visit from a reporter?  Of course, a saavy person will be nice to you.  It might not seem like it, but even small stores are complicated operations...when you show up maybe a delivery truck also just arrived, staff need to be informed why you're there, maybe the owners need to run an errand, or are in the middle of helping a customer on the phone...you name it.  You're lucky that so many folks have been willing to drop what they are doing for you.  I believe most people would welcome the chance to be better prepared for your visit if they had the opportunity.

Hindu vs Hindi

Stephanie:  Thanks for your review. I regularly shop at Double Dragon for vegetables not available in regular stores and for shrimps--they are de-veined and reasonably priced.

Also, hope this does not come across as overly critical but it is a pet peeve of mine: Hindu is a religion and Hindi is a language.

In this sentence: " I wondered how some of the employees communicated with each other. I heard Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindu, Hmong, maybe more. The customers, too, seem to come from around the world"

The correct word is Hindi and not Hindu.

Thank you for catching that.

Thank you for catching that. I actually took a college semester of Hindi about 100 years ago. I can still count to 10 and say 'Down the street and to the left' in Hindi. It was a typo, but that's no excuse.

it's clear

this is just like saying, I walked into a random house in Rosemount, MN, the occupants are white, I'm Asian, they treated me bad because I was taking pictures of their kitchen, living room, etc. there were verbal exchanges, some not so pleasant, for the life of me, I can't seem to understand why, but non-the-less, it's a GREAT home! would I go back, heck yes! would they be happy to have me back, ummm, probably NOT! so it's their fault, for not letting me take these awesome pictures of their house and sharing it with the world! had the results been different if I asked for permission? yes, no, maybe so?


at any rate, be professional, you can't just walts into someone's place of business and expect to be treated like royalty! if you still don't understand, please contact Andrew Zimmern - Bizarre Foods!