Natalie Geary has a tough time finding pickled tomatoes, a treat in her home country of the Ukraine.
Since August, she's been able to buy them at Zina's Market, a new Lawrence grocer specializing in Eastern European and Russian food.
"It's sort of weird stuff to you Americans," said Geary, who lives near Topeka but works in Lawrence. "I get whatever we used to eat at home. It's nice to have it here, and it's not too far away."
Lawrence is now home to at least five shops that focus on international groceries, probably the most in the city's history. Nationally, ethnic foods make up about 14 percent of the groceries sold, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Zina Schepkin, a native of the Ukraine who opened Lawrence's newest ethnic market at 2311 Wakarusa Drive, says she learned the importance of ethnic food while she was a cook for Kansas University's residence halls. On the days she made borscht - a beet soup - international students ate it up.
Now, she sells groceries from a variety of countries. The foods include spicy horseradish mustard, sodas, cheeses, salami and chocolates with liqueur fillings.
She says her clientele includes international students, KU students who have studied abroad and other members of the community. But she admits it's difficult in such a niche market.
"The big store is easier," she said. "It has convenience. But a small store, for a start, it's not easy. It's word of mouth and (distributing) fliers."
Customers such as Alex Tsiovkh, a professor and native of the Ukraine, appreciate the extra effort in getting the store started. He especially likes the Chumak ketchup, spices, sausage and buckwheat sold at Zina's.
"Of course, we like having it close," Tsiovkh said. "It's about a two-minute drive. Those things should be supported - you're never sure if your business will be successful."
International grocers attribute their success in Lawrence to KU and a new focus on gourmet cooking.
"I think it's really good these things are existing and able to stay around when big development is going on in other places in the city," said Tina Stamos, wholesale and special projects manager at Au Marche, 931 Mass. "It's really nice Au Marche still exists and has been able to weather that."
Au Marche was founded in 1998 and carries a variety of European foods. Stamos says cheeses, meats and chocolates are among the store's best-sellers.
"I think it's a trend that's possibly just now hitting Lawrence," Stamos said of ethnic grocers. "It's already existing a lot in other places. It's really hard to say why it works in Lawrence and why it wouldn't work in Manhattan. I think Lawrence is slightly more progressive than other towns in Kansas, but I don't know if it has anything to do with it or not. It might just be a matter of the right timing and good inventory and putting those things together."
Ananh Manixai, manager of Oriental Supermarket, 711 W. 23rd St., says his customers - most of whom are KU students and faculty - usually know exactly what they're looking for when they come in.
He's willing to explain his products to customers. But he figures the variety of foods - which range from pickled lemons and leeks to frozen squid and eel - still might be intimidating to newcomers.
"You have to know something as the customer coming in," he said. "That's different from a Dillons or a Checkers."
Mohammad Al-Zaiti, owner of Mediterranean Market, 3300 Bob Billings Parkway, says he tries to emphasize the health benefits of his foods. Even if customers could find the same products at a chain grocery store, he says his goods likely will be fresher.
"Here, we're always bringing it in and they're always buying it," he said. "It's the best food in the world, the best diet for you. It's beans, dried fruits, olive oil, white cheese."
Susanne Martin, general manager at World Market, 3100 W. 31st St., says her store's offerings from around the globe draw both customers with KU ties and others from the community.
"I think some of it is they assign some status to shopping at World Market, especially if they're townies," she said. "They're a little more worldly because they tried something that wasn't available on their mother's kitchen table."
Sometimes the food tastes better, she says. And sometimes it's really just about the status.
"I think it's personal preference," she said. "I've tried lots of these chocolates, and they're all delicious. But so is a Hershey's bar, in my opinion."