Community, Identity and Occupational Folklife at Taste East Inc.
Contemporary ethnic foodways scholarship focuses largely on the created food item and its matrix of meaning within personal, familial, communal or commercial contexts. These analyses generally articulate the complexity of the cooking, serving and eating processes. With the notable exception of Ghassan Hage’s work on the role of “ethnic institutions” in the development and persistence of a migrant community (Hage 1997), less attention is paid to the acquisition of ingredients that make these processes possible, or the institutions that supply them. For diaspora communities the world over, access to affordable ingredients has an immense influence on their ability to continue practicing their traditional foodways (Tuomainen 2009:528, Cardona 2004:40). Lacking a particular ingredient requires either substitution or omission. While these dynamics are well attested to, shifting the focal point of foodways analysis from a “finished” food item to an “unfinished” one yields a basic, yet puzzling question: where did the ingredients come from?
In the context of a diaspora community, ethnic grocery stores provide one possible answer to this question. The definition of an “ethnic grocery” as a shop that specializes in the foodways of a culture other than the dominant culture, while useful, also highlights many issues. In North American contexts, what makes these grocery stores “ethnic” is their perceived cultural otherness by members of the local majority. This perception is a “normative” construct shaped from a composite of beliefs and values (Brickell and Datta 2011:128). Thus we have Chinese food stores, Polish food stores, and Ethiopian food stores in the United States and Canada rather than “American” or “Canadian” food stores. Yet a North American equivalent can be found in stores offering provincial or state goods outside of those regions, such as a Newfoundland grocery store in Halifax. It becomes apparent that “ethnic” is a label constantly in flux, and its boundaries are drawn and redrawn with each usage in the context of local matrices. The actual shop becomes a layered space, both physically and conceptually. These stores negotiate the liminal space left in the wake of interplay between the global and the local-the translocal-offering not only the regional goods for that diaspora, but also providing a source for introduction and education for the local community (Brickell and Datta 2011:10).
Taste East Inc. in St. John’s, Newfoundland is one such store. Taste East Inc. opened in 2008 as a South Asian and Middle Eastern halal grocery store with close connections to the Muslim and international student communities of St. John’s. On the ground floor in the front half of an attached split level house, it is a small convenience store located across the street from the international student housing complex at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Three sections comprise the store: the cash, the store, and the takeaway. As a functioning business, ethnic grocery stores such as Taste East Inc. carry products to be sold to their customers. Yet the question of why a particular product is stocked is seldom asked. Every item for sale is decided at some point by someone, usually the manager or owner. On a basic level, this decision-making process negotiates the commercial concerns of supply and demand. However, conversations with storeowners and shopkeepers reveal that this process is also embedded in deeper communal and personal values.
Methodology: Framework and Fieldwork
This research note explores these dynamics through the store’s occupational folklife: its origin narratives, material culture, daily-work narratives and workplace routines. Occupational folklife refers to “the complex of techniques, customs, and modes of expressive behavior which characterize a particular work group” (McCarl 1978:145). Workplace routines provide the frame for the numerous narratives told by workers. As Jack Santino notes, the “challenges, duties, skills, working conditions, and its own social milieu… will affect the narratives of that job” (1978:205). Through the expressive behavior of workplace routines and narratives, those in charge of Taste East Inc. (both workers and owners) articulate particular concepts of community and ethnic identity. Rather than one fixed category, community is negotiated through both “cultural proximity” and “spatial proximity.” Community is not defined solely by a relationship of cultural closeness, but also of physical closeness: the groups and individuals living in the geographic locale of the store. Ethnic identity is constructed through the physical objects (i.e. product) and its symbolic meanings (i.e. name); it is experienced and articulated through the social life of the store. In the interplay of global and local contexts, Taste East Inc. presents a particular interpretation of ethnic identity and foodways traditions.
Conducting fieldwork within the store setting positioned me as a customer. While I did not necessarily purchase a specific product each time I visited, I was interacting with the store and workers in that capacity. In addition, I conducted two interviews: one with the owner and founder, Mohammad Neamun Nasir, and the other with Malik “Taz” Nawaz, one of the shopkeepers. Nasir is a former Business graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), who founded Taste East Inc. in 2008 with his friend, and who worked there full-time for the first two years. Taz has been working at the store for two years. He is in his final year of a BBA at MUN which he anticipates completing in fall 2014. Both Nasir and Taz emigrated from Bangladesh to St. John’s to study at MUN as part of the university’s growing international student population over the last ten years.
Origin Story: A Brief History of Taste East Inc
Mohammad Neamun Nasir and Ibrahim Shaikh founded Taste East Inc. in connection with Masjid-an-Noor, Newfoundland’s only mosque, established in 1990 by the Muslim Association of Newfoundland Labrador (MANAL). According to Nasir, MANAL approached some students looking to expand the availability of halal meats in St. John’s. The mosque had already reached an arrangement with Country Ribbon, a St. John’s chicken producer and processor, for members of the mosque to slaughter chicken in the halal method. But there were no arrangements for halal lamb, beef or goat. As Nasir recalled, “When the population started increasing, the MANAL people approached a few of us who used to be here for a longer period of time and asked if it is possible to serve (halal) meat for the community” (Nasir 2014). After Nasir and Shaikh contacted farmers and local butchers in the St. John’s area, arrangements were made through MANAL to slaughter the animals.
For the first few months, meats were sold through the mosque. Eventually, however, demand for the meats exceeded the space available at the mosque so MANAL asked if “…it was possible to have a spot where you can actually bring the meat and start selling it, that way the mosque will get some benefit and you will get some benefit too” (Nasir 2014). Nasir and Ibrahim contacted the Allandale Mini Mart located across the street from MUN and offered to rent the store. At first, they purchased only four or five deep freezers to store the halal meats, and sold some other “essentials” such as rice. Within a few months they began to carry spices and other miscellaneous goods at the requests of customers.
These early suggestions came largely from members of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, and the international student population. Additional rolling shelves were purchased over the years as the store began to carry more and more goods. The takeaway was also established following a recommendation from MANAL, who knew Nasir was a cook. During his undergraduate studies at MUN, Nasir was heavily involved with international student organizations and cooked for many of the large functions and events hosted by the International Student Advising Office, the Indian Youth Association, and the Bangladesh Student Association. These organizations remain patrons of Taste East Inc.’s catering service. The store and the takeaway (and catering) are identified by Nasir as two distinct components of the Taste East Inc. business “model.”
“What’s in a Name?”: A Dialog of Naming and Identity
On my first trip to Taste East Inc., Sukhman, one of the part-time shopkeepers and a MUN student, joked over the ambiguity of the name. “What is Taste East? What does it mean? East where? This is more of a ‘We have something ‘eastern’ from here,’ yes?” Sukhman thus saw the name as a particular interpretation of ethnic identity, a “patchwork” (Tuleja 1997:7) constructed in the context of the local cultural identity of Newfoundland and the identity of Taste East Inc. This “double-consciousness” reveals a formulation of a naming identity through a fluid dialog with both native and non-native categories of belonging (Tolia-Kelly 2010:67). The naming of the store is an active process of interpreting and negotiating distance between cultural landscapes in the context of a shared physical landscape. While this articulation of the store as “other” is found in its official name, on another register Taste East Inc. negotiates and fits into a local toponymy tradition.
Although Taste East Inc. is the “formal” name of the business and the one that is used for their online presence and in filings with the government, it is not the only name it operates under. A large, blue awning that hangs above the store still reads “Allandale Mini Mart,” the name of the preceding business. Use of these names is interchangeable and refers to the same physical location. When I had asked Nasir about the sign, he stated that keeping the name was intentional. His response reveals that this decision was reached through both pragmatic and ideological considerations:
The reason the sign is there [is] because we wanted to let people know that it is still Allandale Mini-Mart, but they are now operating a multicultural shop. Because at some point we had people doing their groceries, and they wanted to call a cab and they said ‘Ok, can you come over to Taste East?’ and [they] would say ‘What?’ Then they would have to go over all these things. So the next statement is ‘No it is Allandale Mini-mart’ then ‘Ok coming over.’ So that is easier for them to know, and we wanted to keep it and have our name under it (Nasir 2014).
In keeping the Allandale Mini Mart sign, Taste East Inc. maintains a connection to the physical and cultural landscape of St. John’s that preceded it, while also articulating its own role in the expansion of that landscape. Taste East Inc., after all, is still the only dedicated halal grocer in St. John’s at the time of this writing. Distance is established between the previous Allandale Mini Mart and Taste East Inc. largely in terms of what is being sold and not where the item is being sold. The Allandale Mini Mart of past years sold the typical fare of North American convenience stores, later on renting out to a short-lived “Power Smoothies” business in 2006. Today “Allandale Mini Mart” remains the physical location of the store while the actual shop within that location is Taste East Inc. The store is therefore a “layered space,” communicating multiple narratives of belonging to the local and international communities through its name, in terms of culture (Taste East Inc.) and geographic proximity (Allandale Mini Mart). Nasir comments:
And that has been established pretty good actually, because people know it as Allandale Mini-Mart, that is the location. One word and people know. And the next thing is the name of the store, and people know it is an ethnic store down there. That is how we actually tried to incorporate, because we wanted to let people know that is a spot to come in...we could change it, but we wanted to keep it because it is easier for people to find this place (Nasir 2014).
Nasir concluded that having both names negotiated a “tradition of naming” he saw in St. John’s since he first moved here nearly ten years ago: locals refer to places by their former names. He notes:
What is there in the name? Technically from whatever you do, for local people here will know it as an ethnic store. Not too many people will know it as Taste East Inc. That is the name of it, we have to use it for businesses registration purposes. But in general purpose, the location is what matters. Maybe we could have called it, “Allandale East Indian store,” but I thought people will know it [by the old name] anyway (Nasir 2014).
Signs identifying the store within as Taste East Inc. are found in the front street-facing window and on the side of the store. At the time of this writing, the sign on the side of the store is damaged and in line to be replaced. Both signs mirror the color scheme of the larger Allandale Mini-Mart awning, using the same three colors but in a different combination; the sign on the side of the store also features an additional green font.
While maintaining the large Allandale Mini Mart sign may impact the store’s visibility as an ethnic grocery within the St. John’s landscape, it reflects the complexities of Taste East Inc.’s philosophy. Through its naming practice, the store communicates a particular interpretation of ethnic identity constructed in relation to the local community, simultaneously placing it within and outside multiple communities. The traditional foodways of different South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures are subsumed within the “East” of its name, a bond presented chiefly through a shared adherence to Islam and halal products. Thus items from unique foodways traditions, such as Turkish baklavas and Indian masalas, are grouped together for the perusing customer on a general, nebulous layer; they are representative of a wider “Eastern” (as opposed to Western) tradition. It is on a more intimate level of experience, through the active selecting of a product that specific South Asian and/or Middle Eastern foodways are distinguished.
A similar dynamic unfolds over the physical Allandale Mini Mart sign. Knowledge of the contents of the location--that it is an ethnic store--is dependent largely on word of mouth. People unfamiliar with the store, such as peers I spoke with during my research, are often surprised to discover the types of product sold within the store. They see a disconnect between the store’s name and its products: a mini-mart in the North American context is not expected to be a specialized ethnic grocer. Taste East Inc. is thus a layered space both conceptually and pragmatically, constructed through a dialogic local-translocal process; it is a familiar space, but perhaps an unfamiliar place.
Familiar Space and Unfamiliar Place: Theorizing the Physical Landscape of Taste East Inc.
The constant interplay of space and place at Taste East Inc. informs much of the customer’s knowledge of store dynamics. Yi-Fu Tuan provides perhaps the broadest starting point for an analysis of place as “the stable object that catches our attention” (1977:161). Place is an articulated moment in space while space is constructed through our panoramic experience of daily life. Thus we can talk about a house as a place within the space of a neighborhood but then the living room is a place within the house-space. A chair is a place within the living room space, and so forth. This transition from space to place is marked by the accumulation and identification of particular materials as symbols: “space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning” (Tuan 1977:136). This process of identifying place within a space is dependent as much on the physical objects as it is on the individual’s construction and interpretation of reality. The active experience of space and place for Tuan is rooted in this individual-centric zenith: “To experience is to learn; it means acting on the given and creating out of the given. The given cannot be known in itself” (1977:9). Individuals are active participants in the space they occupy, constantly shaping and reshaping its boundaries.
Ultimately, Tuan’s theory of space and place is grounded in the physical reality or “biological facts” of space, the “interrelations of space and place,” and the individual’s experience (knowledge-building) and articulation of place (1977:6). Similar to Tuan’s model is Henri Lefebvre’s tripartite theory of space rooted in the physical (absolute space), mental (abstract space), and social (differential space). This last space is closest to the active experience of space, and is articulated by its gender relations, social hierarchy relations and labor relations (Lefebvre 1991:32). There are three layers of spatial experience. Firstly, there is the perception of the absolute space, the physical bedrock that comprises the lived experience. Then, there is the abstract imagining of that physical space as each individual constructs their own “logic” (Lefebvre 1991:53). Finally, there is the active experience of the space where the two ideologies of absolute physicality (perception) and the abstract mentality (deduction) are interwoven yielding the unique experience of the individual.
Lefebvre’s Marxist historiographical approach traces the development of these different spaces in the West, focusing on the construction and maintenance of space as a means of control, dominance and resistance (1991:26). Space for Lefebvre is a social product articulated by the elite (1991:26). Yet despite the attempts of social or political authorities to wholly control the symbolic qualities of space, the individual and collective experience actively constructs its own articulations (1991:26). This is especially true of the differential social space, where individuals are no longer “silent users” of the abstract space, susceptible to external homogenizing forces as they deconstruct and reconstruct their social organizing with that space (Lefebvre 1991:51).
Tuan and Lefebvre offer useful frames for interpreting Taste East Inc. as an intended and layered space, both externally within the St. John’s landscape and internally in terms of layout within the store. The models position individuals at the centre of their spatial experience of place. Yet Lefebvre’s model better reflects the multitude of “acts of interpretation” the individual undergoes in the encounter of the “singular” place (Cresswell 1996:13). Thus the negotiation of ethnic identity within the store does not yield one result, but rather variations (or even contradictions). The boundaries of the enigmatic “East” label are drawn and redrawn by each individual.
The physical articulation of Taste East Inc.’s space as a particular place does rest in the control of the owners and shopkeepers. Two of the three spaces within the store are intended for employees only--behind the cashier and in the kitchen—while both employees and customers have equal access to the main part of the store. However, the interior layout of the store is designed to facilitate the customer’s ease of access to products. The customer’s “experiential reality” of that space and articulation of place is in turn colored by the locating, and eventual identification, of their desired product. The location of the item is the “stable object” of place. If anything, power relations are constructed by the shopkeepers through the layout of the store to privilege the customer as they meander through the aisles.
Following Tuan’s experiential model, this spatial knowledge--the navigation of the customer throughout the store--is coordinated through the store’s layout. Taz notes that the changing layout of the store, as they carry more and more products, is shaped by an attempt to maintain customer flow throughout the store:
As we tried to bring more stuff in, it is not bad, still we have plenty of room to walk by and people have freedom to look for to places…the shelves are not like, so much…we have room I could say. It’s not packed, people can walk around and buy something if they want to. The primary layout hasn’t changed, but bits and pieces just changed a bit (Nawaz 2014).
While the sale of a product does mean profit for the business, first the customer must actually locate the product they were searching for. They interpret and reinterpret space and place with each movement.
Community: Articulating a Business Model through Occupational Narratives
Over the course of my interviews with Nasir and Taz, it became apparent that a connection to community was vital to their business model on both a personal and professional level. While the business has become profitable, profitability was not the sole reason to keep the store open. Nasir recognized the store as fulfilling an ever-increasingly important role for the growing international community in St. John’s providing access to the specific sorts of items needed to maintain traditional foodways. While many of the major supermarkets have greatly expanded their selection of international foods, Taste East Inc. offers a more concentrated variety of items based on early input from the community.
In the beginning, the Middle Eastern and South Asian communities were actively engaged in deciding what types of goods the store carried. Nasir recalls this process, which he placed within the first few months of the business:
We started selling meat, and then other people came in and said ‘Why don’t you sell some Middle Eastern items?’ Like spices and all these things, right? Then some Indian people came in and said ‘Why don’t you sell our rice and lentils?’ So we had a fair bit of space there, and we thought ‘Why don’t we buy some shelves?’ So we bought some shelve, and started to contact some people outside of St. John’s, the wholesalers (Nasir 2014).
Taz corroborated the importance of supplying these particular items to the community: “I am an international student too, so I understand the urge of having, you know, your own food here. That’s how Taste East Inc. opened and that is why we serve [what we do]” (Nawaz 2014).
Nasir and Ibrahim went on to ask their early customers about the specific types of items that they would like to see in store. They later conducted a survey through Memorial University’s International Student Advising Office and the South Asian and Middle Eastern student associations at MUN. Nasir notes that there was a degree of trial and error early on, as neither man had run or managed a business before and it was difficult figuring out what items people would buy and how much to charge. Taz heard this story from Nasir, as he was not with Taste East Inc. when it was founded. He shared his own recollection:
I heard about it because I wasn’t there in the opening. But as far as I know, he told me, the manager Nasir, he told me, that we had to bring the stuff just because the people say ‘We need this.’ We tried to bring those stuff. Because it is on the demand of the people, because we were just opened at that time and we didn’t have much customer at that time than now (Nawaz 2014).
After ordering these items from their wholesalers, Nasir, Ibrahim and the shopkeepers, kept an eye on which items sold and which didn’t. Nasir spoke of the high cost of transportation in importing ingredients to St. John’s as a major factor in their decision making process. The store owners and workers act as “gate keepers,” controlling access to a particular product through an interplay of financial, personal, and communal considerations (Lewin 1943:292). Orders for things that sold consistently well were continued; those that didn’t were not renewed: “We try to bring as much possible, that we need for two months, Then after that we will order some more [if needed]. We order it after a month, and then it usually takes a few weeks to come” (Nawaz 2014). While requests are still taken by the store owners, Taz noted that it is not quite on the same scale as it was earlier as they now have a “good sense” of the products people are looking for.
Jack Santino notes that recounting the early years of a business is a popular theme in occupational narratives. These “golden age” narratives tend to be characterized by a positive light, whether they tell of success or hardship that was eventually overcome (Santino 1978, 204). More than a simple romanticization of the past, these narratives of the “good old days” articulate ideologies at the core of the individual and industry’s work philosophy (McCarl 1978:155). In the context of Taste East Inc., the closeness of the community to the store in its formative years is reflected in the narratives. When the owners spoke of the early years of the store, they paid less attention to the financial situation and more to how the store’s success was driven by the community and their different community engagements. Nasir seemed to recall this period with fondness, despite the hardships he and Ibrahim endured in learning first-hand all of the requirements in running a business.
In the context of a commercial business, the temptation arises to interpret a store’s community as its customer base. But this categorization is insufficient; it is limiting and fails to capture the breadth of interaction between a store and its patrons, fixating on the temporary economic relationship of buyer-seller. Nasir and Taz identified the customer as an “active patron” of the store; it is someone who purchases items at the store. This customer base, which Nasir estimated to be seventy or eighty percent international students, is always shifting given that many students were here only temporarily.
Community, on the other hand, is a more amorphous and permanent category which seems to include not only the active customer base, but also those who are or may be connected to the store in some manner. On one level, this community is one who shares religious, social, and/or cultural beliefs with the owner, such as international students, Muslims, and so on. Yet Taz and Nasir also spoke of their involvement with the “local” Newfoundland community. They have participated in the Regatta and Farmer’s Market in past years and Nasi used to host cooking classes at Taste East Inc. for some of their regular local customers. Taz, when we were talking about communities that the store serves, trailed off into an anecdote about how he was surprised to learn that “local Caucasian people had a taste for Indian food” (Nawaz 2014), something he had never considered significant growing up in Bangladesh. What connects these two communities--local and international--to one another, and to Taste East Inc., are the goods sold in store, as he noted “You don’t have to be Muslim to eat halal food” (Nawaz 2014). Distinctions between customer and community member articulated the storekeepers’ perceptions of meaning beyond the financial exchange; a negotiation of a shared set of cultural values takes place through engagement in a common foodways.
Material culture at the store revolves around its most important, but also most transient, type of object: commercial products. The stock represents an assemblage of customer, owner, and shopkeeper values regarding expense, taste, health, and social location (Lewin 1943:295). Products articulate the store’s identity as a South Asian and Middle Eastern grocery store and each individual item contributes and shapes the boundaries. This constant shifting of foodways identity reveals the “multivocality” of the food product. The actual meaning is tied into the individual consumer (Turgeon and Pastinelli 2002:250). This multiplicity of meaning is reflective of the similar individual-centered process of interpretation and reinterpretation of store space and place. The “meaning” and community service of the store is thus interwoven with the products they sell: the “home items” affirm the community’s group identity through a particular foodways tradition (Kalčik 1984:38). These values and meanings communicated through the cultural materials, or products, at Taste East Inc. are thus an idealized “landscape of home” represented through a particular interpretation of South Asian and Middle Eastern identity (Tolia-Kelly 2010:70). The landscape identity is formulated through a dialogic process with foodways traditions, rather than a direct extension or imitation of those same ethnic identities.
Nasir emphasized that serving the community was central to his business model: “Community service…because it started from a mentality of doing something for the community…eventually it actually became a profitable business” (Nasir 2014). This community service extends from the imported goods that they supply to the international (and local) community of St. John’s, to cooking classes, and catering for local events or family celebrations. This past year, the largest single catering order was for 100 chicken biryanis for an organization’s event. When I had asked Nasir to elaborate on Taste East Inc.’s community service, he reflected on the importance of their catering, both for private and community events. Catering is run out of their kitchen, located behind the takeaway counter in the rear of the store.
Nasir stressed that they operate their catering at a discount: “If bigger restaurants charge like fifteen or twenty dollars a plate, we’ll charge six or seven” (Nasir 2014). This discounting reflects the primary goal of the store to fulfill a lack, and the ensuing profitability from that sale as secondary. Ramadan is typically the busiest time period for catering; specifically for iftar, the meal eaten after sunset to break the daylong fast. During Ramadan, catered meals are often ordered as “donations” by the members of an organization for that group’s communal iftar. Nasir noted that “community service” is not strictly a concern of the business-customer relationship. While he acknowledged that competition is good for business, he also expressed worry that “splitting” the small and shifting community between many dedicated ethnic grocery stores may be damaging for the business community involved. He noted that if a “professional grocer” did what they were doing, and were successful, he would reexamine the future of the store.
Custom orders or “pricing arrangements,” both for individuals and organizations, are a further outlet through which the store serves its community. Nasir saw this as one of the reasons people continue to come to the store. At Taste East Inc. they can negotiate a discount when buying in bulk whereas at major supermarkets, such as Sobey’s or Dominion, they cannot. Because of their experience in managing large orders, certain organizations, such as Masjid-an-Noor, place their orders for halal meat through the store. Nasir mentioned that they are also in contact with two new restaurants, Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine and Mohamed Ali’s Middle Eastern Restaurant: “Even though it is something we do not need to do, we work as a family [with the customers], because a lot of community people know that if they call Ibrahim or Nasir, or the boys at the store, they will arrange something for them” (Nasir 2014). Placing and receiving custom orders for products outside of their usual practice helps maintain an intimate relationship with their customers.
Interactions with customers in the store often extend beyond the financial transaction. Taz noted that social interaction and engaging the customer was an important part of his job, ranging from exchanges on the availability of a product, to helping find that product, discussing what product they may need, or on a more personal level, general socializing. Further, Taz spoke of the importance of being able to speak the native languages of other community members, in order to assist them out in the store. Taz himself speaks Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English. This is especially important for customers who may not be students, or those who haven’t had any education or instruction in English. He comments, “Not all housewife, you know? Not all of them are educated in that way [English language], some have problem. So it is a good thing I can interact and help sort out their problems by communicating [in their language], right?” (Nawaz 2014). On the occasions that I have observed, it seemed that either Taz or the customer would anticipate a language the other could speak and then initiate conversation in that language. With their regular customers, the storekeepers’ communication occurred in the language each knew the other spoke.
A Glimpse into the Occupational Folklife of a Taste East Inc. Shopkeeper
Interactions with customers are one aspect of the work technique in the occupational folklife of the shopkeepers at Taste East Inc. Work technique refers to the working knowledge of a job that identifies and places the individual worker within the occupational work group: the communication of “expertise and esoteric knowledge” through the manipulation of the tools, environment, and other workers (McCarl 1978:148). Through work technique, a hierarchy of workers is then established. This hierarchy may be explicitly or implicitly performed through the ability of a worker to “exhibit that knowledge” (McCarl 1986:72). Work technique offers a framework for interpreting the various tasks of the shopkeeper as a meaningful skill that communicates a particular set of cultural knowledge.
Taz defined his job title--his interpretation of the work group--as “cashier plus shopkeeper [because] everything is included.” He “takes care of the kitchen as well as the store front” (Nawaz 2014), two spaces each requiring similar but unique skills to operate. Nasir and Ibrahim leave much of the daily decisions in the running of the store to the shopkeepers. Taz summarized his daily routine as follows:
Ordering the masalas and everything we sell here…preparing to marinate the food as you saw…preparing and serving food at that time when we work. So this is the things we do…also putting [items] in the shelf…and taking order [delivery] of the chicken when it comes. Also, the inspection guys come, and we keep the shop clean at all times…these are the initial things we do (Nawaz 2014).
Each of these tasks he articulated requires a particular skill set to complete. This comprises the work technique which he learned initially from Nasir and Sukhman through imitation and instruction (McCarl 1978:148). The techniques with which Taz completes these tasks determine his status as a member of the “shopkeeper” workgroup within the context of Taste East Inc. (1978:149). However, as Taz became more familiar with working at the store he developed his own method of completing his required duties. He personalized a shared “work technique” of the shopkeeper work group through repeated acts: stocking the shelves, cleaning the store, preparing the takeaway dishes, and operating the cash register (McCarl 1986:84).
Stocking the shelves is central to the operation of any store. In placing items on the shelves, the worker engages in a decision-making process influenced by a plethora of factors: the labor required, (perceived) desirability of the item, ease of access throughout the space, and the organization and flow of the item in relation to others. Stocking at Taste East Inc. does not seem to be determined by a store-wide alphabetical order but rather a “type order”: different related products, such as spices or teas, are placed next to one another. Taz noted that this method was informed by the demands of the customer and the item’s “historical” location within the store. Over time, the individual product acquired a “correct” or “proper” place. (Cresswell 1996:3).Taz commented:
Stocking…it has been a method. Because there are some places where you know where you keep those [items], because there are permanent customers of ours who always come by and don’t have to say anything. They just go to the place and take the stuff. They know where it is. So we try to maintain the same thing, keeping the store as it is, you know? When things come we just try to reshelf it, and not change too much. But when new things come we do put them in front so people can see that is the new item we got. (Nawaz 2014).
Stocking is thus a learned skill for Taz that he acquired and refined over the course of his employment. It is informed by the extant organizational model and his interpretation of that model. Items on the shelves belong where they are, because that is where they (already) are. While shelves and products may shift or be added, the general ordering and grouping of the spices, meats, fishes and other goods seldom change. When there is change, it is fit into the current organizational technique. Restocking the shelf affirms the individual’s membership in the shopkeeper work group at Taste East Inc. In this sense the store itself can be positioned as a “cultural scene” (McCarl 1986:72); it is a shared space of social interaction where cultural knowledge is expressed and transmitted among the shopkeepers.
Maintaining the general cleanliness of the store was mentioned on numerous occasions by Taz, and seems to be of major importance for his daily routine. As a business, Taste East Inc. is required to maintain a particular degree of hygiene, monitored through visitations by provincial Health & Safety inspectors. Through on-site inspections, these regulators ensure that the restaurant conforms to hygiene standards. After their first year of operation for the takeaway, Nasir and Ibrahim were forced to remove a few tables and chairs set up for in-store dining. A Health & Safety inspection ruled that they could not operate a dine-in area due to the lack of a bathroom and the takeaway would have to remain just that: a take-out service.
Operating this takeaway is one of the main tasks for the shopkeeper throughout his workday, as it continues to be a source of persistent revenue. Similar to the store, its items are priced with affordability in mind and according to the owners’ perception of a student’s budget. While the takeaway is technically part of the store, it is physically separated from it by a tall green counter. For the shopkeeper, the work technique needed to operate the kitchen and cook the various dishes differs considerably from that needed in the front store. These skills involve the preparation, cooking and serving of the various dishes. They require both knowledge and execution of the recipes originated by Nasir. As with the store, Taz initially learned the work technique from Nasir, but later went on to personalize his own methodology: how to measure the spices (visual estimation), his path through the kitchen, or how to arrange the final dish. Similar to the work technique of the storefront, maintaining a general conformity, such as how long to cook the chicken biryani in the slow cooker, affirms his place in the shopkeeper work group.
At Taste East Inc., the naming of the store, the business model, the community service, and the products sold all negotiate a complex of translocal community and identity. Occupational narratives detailing the day-to-day operations of the store and its origin show the influence of commercial, communal, and personal factors on the decision-making process embedded in the daily operation of the store. The work technique of the shopkeepers reveals the store as an intended space articulated by an ever-shifting set of assumptions and values regarding the relationship of people, products and ethnic identities. The selection of particular groceries and dishes for sale at Taste East Inc. are representative of a South Asian and Middle Eastern “landscape of home” (Tolia-Kelly 2010:70). Customers, owners, and shopkeepers continuously reconstruct their perceptions of, and relation to, the cultural landscape(s) through the actual experience of the store. This melding of the experiential and theoretical knowledge of the physical store space and its contents through the simple act of being in the store (Tuan 1977:67-8) is thus a means to engage with the perceived distances constructed through the articulation of ethnic identity (Long 1998:183-4).
The perceived “nearness or farness” of the foodways traditions encountered in the store is intimately tied into the personal background of the individual; for instance it depends on whether a grocery is identified as Bangladeshi, from a specific region of Bangladesh, or more generally South Asian. As a multivocal site, each individual customer, owner or shopkeeper constructs a particular interpretation of ethnic identity. This bricolage emerges from the layering of the physical and conceptual space of the store that occurs as the individual moves through and interacts within it. The “landscape of home” found amid the shelves and aisles of Taste East Inc. is not fixed, but a fluid medium through which the self, the other, and the between are engaged in constant discourse.
Stocking the Home
Photographs by Edward Millar
Taste East Inc. is easily recognized from the street or sidewalk by its large Allandale Mini Mart sign: a remnant of the previous business.
Taz marinating the Tandoori Chicken: one skill in the shopkeeper’s work technique repertoire.
Knowledge of the store, such as where items are located or their price, is gained by traversing the aisles.
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