Most cities have local ethnic food stores that sell produce for a lot less than the big grocery chains. I suppose they are called this because they are often started by immigrants to serve other immigrants (ex. Mexican, Vietnamese, Armenian). But why are they cheaper? One popular theory was that they bought the “ugly” stuff that the chains wouldn’t buy. (Driscoll’s became dominant by breeding beautiful strawberries, even though in my opinion it tastes like they crossbred with styrofoam.)
Her discovery: Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.
My personal theory is that these are family businesses and everyone pitches in. The article doesn’t directly address cheap family labor, but minimal overhead is discussed:
Indeed, Chinatown’s green grocers make Costco look like Dean & DeLuca. Some are mere sidewalk stands renting space in front of a nail salon or a drugstore. Shelves are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint; prices are hastily marked on strips of cardboard. Shoeboxes serve as cash registers. The scales are still analogue, and good luck using a credit card.
All this translates into low overhead for the retailers—and low prices for shoppers. The typical Chinatown produce markup is just 10% to 12% over wholesale, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.
This special sourcing can vary. Unfortunately I don’t live near NYC Chinatown, but in my local ethnic market, some of the produce will also be from a local farm, often the lesser-known asian vegetable or herbs that grow like weeds but wilt quickly. However, some of these vendors also offer everything from watermelon to tomatoes in December. In that case, then they are probably buying some things directly from a commercial wholesaler. (It still might be cheaper than a chain.) I usually look for a sign that says “local” or simply ask them what is locally grown.