Central Ave square with Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern shops
La Luna Tienda Latina’s line of customers forms outside even before the store opens most mornings.
There is Tiep Pham, owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Pho An Hoa next door. When the door opens and customers pour in, Pham has little to do to get what he came for.
Pham meets the gaze of the woman at the counter and raises her hand in a familiar gesture. She hands him a pack of Marlboro Gold cigarettes. No words are required and no money is exchanged until the two goodbye waves. Their ritual is built on mutual understanding and trust.
La Luna Tienda Latina, Pho An Hoa, and Cedar Land Mediterranean grocery store and restaurant have shared a parking lot for years. The Little Square is a microcosm of diversity that epitomizes East Charlotte – people from countries all over the world are represented at the three nearby Central Avenue businesses.
And as the cost of living rose in the rapidly growing city, the immigrant community somehow persisted – stronger, together.
“You see all kinds of people…if you stand out front here for an hour,” Cedar Land owner Musa Imreish said. “You see something beautiful.”
While 1 in 7 Charlotte residents is an immigrant and the area’s population has generally become more diverse in recent years, many parts of the city are racially and ethnically homogeneous. The reverse is true in communities along much of Central Avenue, however.
According to data from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer tool from 2000 to 2020, more Asians and Latinos moved to neighborhoods along the Central Avenue strip beginning at Briar Creek and ending at Albemarle. The population of people who identify as Latino has increased from 18.9% to 32.8% and that of Asians from 4.7% to 6.5%. The region’s black population declined slightly from 35.3.7% to 27.8%.
But Charlotte’s immigrants haven’t just found a community on Central Avenue, they’ve also found opportunity.
Pho An Hoa
When Pham started working as a dishwasher in Pho An Hoa years ago, the name of the restaurant spoke to him.
“An hoa” means “peaceful” in Vietnamese.
Pham was promoted to waiter and then cook before deciding to buy the restaurant in 2011, shortly after his marriage.
But during the first months of owning the company, things were not so “peaceful”. Pham lost 30 pounds in a matter of weeks as a new dad and business owner.
“I didn’t know anything about restaurants,” he said. “Man, this is terrible…(owning a) small business has been a tough time from the start.”
After a while, however, business stabilized and Pham found his footing. Today, this is how he supports his family of four, including a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son.
For Pham, customers are also like family.
Charlotte has a competitive Vietnamese food scene, Pham said. But the Vietnamese restaurant does not only see Vietnamese customers. Pham believes its multicultural clientele is linked to the restaurant’s location, next to Latin and Mediterranean markets.
That, and Pham thinks his pho is one of the best in Charlotte..
It is a time consuming process, making traditional Vietnamese broth, but fundamental to the quality of pho. Some days, when the soup isn’t tasty, Pham pours out the pot and closes the restaurant. It’s all about consistency for him.
“That’s how you keep customers coming back,” he said.
Beans and seed oils were elusive groceries in Charlotte when Musa Imreish arrived in the 1970s.
As a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he stuffed himself into a small car with other friends and made monthly trips to Washington, DC, to get what he needed.
Eventually, too much travel prompted him to open his own boutique in Charlotte. Imreish opened a few Ali Baba grocery stores before helping a friend run Cedar Land in 1994. Imreish later bought it out and has run the store ever since.
When the store first opened, it was hard to get the word out, Imreish said.
“If you said ‘falafel,’ they’d think you said ‘waffle,'” he told Charlotteans decades ago. “They were scared.”
Born and raised in Jordan, Imreish stocks the food he grew up with in the store, as well as spices and specialties from several countries on this side of the globe. Customers can find everything from injera, an Ethiopian flatbread, to Mediterranean grape leaves, samosas and sweets during Ramadan.
Its customers come from all over the world, especially from Africa, Bosnia, Germany and India. Some come from other states to buy his food and produce, just as he made pilgrimages to DC
La Luna Tienda Latina
Although La Luna Tienda Latina has been in its Central Avenue location since 1995, it was purchased by Jorge Morales, the current owner, in 2002. He had just moved from Colombia and wanted something that reminded him of his home in his new town. .
That’s when the small bodega transitioned from selling Latin American food and drink to providing money order and transfer services. Now it’s one of the biggest attractions in the store.
Manager Maribel Morales has worked at the store since 2005, just a year after leaving Mexico for Charlotte. Guests have become like family over the years, thanks in large part to the owner’s mission to get to know their neighbors.
“His idea was to develop a local store as something that reminded him of convenience stores back home,” she said. “He wanted to meet the people who lived nearby and learn more about their stories. He wanted to know more about the community around him.
And as customers stopped by the store to send money home to their families in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, Morales learned more about their stories.
“It was through building this store that he had the opportunity to meet and learn about the families and loved ones of his customers,” Morales said. “Because they send them money home, it’s easy to know their names and their stories, because people tend to talk about their lives when they feel they can trust you, especially more that they have been part of the community for so long.”
And it’s this family trust that allows customers to buy items “al fiado”, or on credit – like Pham and Imreish.
“It’s something that happens when you trust the person will repay,” Morales said. “Sometimes it’s a box of cigarettes, potatoes for their business, chili peppers, and we take a list and at the end of the day they pay it back.”
East Charlotte is not immune to the city’s rising cost of living. Still, the store has managed to keep prices low and maintain practices like “al fiado.” Morales said these traditions are what make him feel at home.
“They are not just customers anymore. They are part of the family.
This story was originally published June 23, 2022 06:00.