The Defining Decade: Saraga International Grocery Opens

Erin Edwards
Saraga International Market

In 2018, Bon Appetit magazine ran a story about Columbus' Saraga International Grocery on Morse Road. In it, author Zahir Janmohamed wrote: “For immigrants, grocery stores like Saraga are not so much shopping destinations as they are spaces to help new residents build community.”

Indeed, Saraga is not your average grocery. By carrying produce and provisions from all over the world, the 40,000-square-foot market caters to the needs of Columbus' increasingly multicultural population—one made up of large Somali and Bhutanese-Nepali communities as well as Central Americans, Chinese and other immigrant and refugee groups. And the grocery's Northland location is ideal: According to U.S. census data, the neighborhood added more than 11,000 foreign-born residents from 2000 to 2016, far outgaining the number of U.S.-born residents that moved into the area during that time.

The opening of Saraga in 2013 was a critical development for Northland, which had fallen on tough times since 2002, when the once-popular Northland Mall shuttered at the intersection of Morse and Karl roads. The area had been a vibrant shopping and residential center from the mall's opening in 1964 through the 1980s. In the 1990s, a string of new shopping destinations began luring customers (and businesses) away. The openings of The Mall at Tuttle Crossing in 1989 and Easton Town Center in 1999 accelerated the area's downturn, and in 2001, Polaris Fashion Place dealt a final blow.

Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.

The building at 1265 Morse Road, a former Toys R Us, had been empty for 10 years when brothers John and Bong Sung, a pair of Korean immigrants from Indiana, decided to bring their international megastore to Columbus. It was their first Saraga outside Indiana. John, who calls himself a risk-taker, says he had no idea about two of the city's largest immigrant populations when he picked the site. “I didn't know at all. We didn't know about the Nepalis. We didn't know about the Somalis,” he says.

It was a Nepali-owned food counter inside Saraga, Momo Ghar, that started drawing global-minded foodies and media outlets from all over, thus amplifying the market's profile as an incubator for immigrant entrepreneurs. The eatery's owner, Phuntso Lama, has since expanded into the North Market. Another Saraga vendor, Ranchero Kitchen, outgrew the market and opened a standalone Salvadoran restaurant across Morse Road.

The demand for Saraga's international offerings has only grown. The Sungs recently opened a second market on Cleveland Avenue. And when reached by phone in October for this story, John, the risk-taker, was working on the roof of Saraga's third Central Ohio location, coming soon to the immigrant enclave of South Hamilton Road on the East Side.

But while Saraga may be meeting a vital need—and helping to build community—for newcomers to the U.S., housing is not keeping pace with the Northland area's burgeoning population. Columbus needs more than 14,000 new housing units per year to meet demand by 2050, but it's currently building about 8,000 per year, according to the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio. The problem is particularly dire in Northland, says Michael Wilkos, senior vice president of community impact for the United Way of Central Ohio.

If 2010–19 was the decade in which Columbus proved itself one of the most welcoming cities in Ohio for new Americans, perhaps 2020–29 will be the decade when the city figures out how to house them.

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June: Gordon Gee—the only person to serve as Ohio State president twice—announced his retirement from the university

July: A Legionnaires' Disease outbreak killed six people and sickened 39 more at the Wesley Ridge Retirement Community in Reynoldsburg.

October: Dublin's Muirfield Village Golf Club hosted the Presidents Cup, one of golf's premier team events.

Other 2013 Moments