New market giving international students a taste of home

From left, JB Global Market store manager Deepak Sharma, owner Joe Barkhouse, and volunteer consultant Bevis Thompson. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

The concept for Joe Barkhouse’s new grocery store grew from a Thanksgiving dinner he hosted eight years ago for international college students.

“I realized they had no family to spend Thanksgiving with and had no understanding of the tradition,” said Barkhouse, 29.

That first Thanksgiving, about a dozen arrived at the family farm. This year, Barkhouse and volunteers from Sarnia Gospel Hall are expecting 350 people for dinner.

The students come from India, Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries where a Thanksgiving turkey is very unfamiliar.

“Many don’t eat meat so we had to redesign the meal to suit them,” he said.  “But we were happy to because they come from cultures where they are used to much more communal food preparation, where everyone cooks and eats together.

“International students in Sarnia say they really miss that.”

Barkhouse is an independent consultant at several regional greenhouses and offered jobs to some of the first international students at Lambton College in 2011.

As he got to know them, he realized how much they missed food from their own countries, as well as the camaraderie of preparing meals as a group.

On top of the Thanksgiving dinner, he began hosting students each Sunday at his home so they could cook foods from their own country.

Groups of them began hiring Ubers to get to Brampton to buy the ingredients and spices they needed for meals. When they couldn’t consistently find them, said Barkhouse, he decided to meet that need and start a new business on London Road.

On Aug. 1, he opened JB Global Market with dry goods, frozen meats and fresh vegetables from around the world.

“I realized I could create jobs and provide the foods they like,” he said.

To confirm what to stock on the shelves, Barkhouse formed focus groups of various ethnicities and asked them to shop online for groceries.

“I was born and raised in Sarnia and I am super white,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t tried 95% of what’s in my store now.”

The groceries most commonly chosen by the focus groups formed a basis for sourcing the inventory. It comes primarily from Toronto-based suppliers, but he also brings in tortillas from Leamington.

The store stocks hundreds of items, including frozen dumplings from Korea, Mexican drinks, frozen fruit from India, and frozen milkfish, a Filipino favourite.

“I didn’t realize there are so many Filipinos in Sarnia but when I opened and didn’t have their food, they asked where their section was. Now I carry a variety of food that’s popular with the Filipinos.

“It’s been very difficult to make a business plan for this,” Barkhouse said. “We’re still learning as we go, but sales were about 50% more than we expected in the first month.”

He’s also surprised by the number of resident Canadians shopping at the store.

“There are many more than we expected,” he said. “They come to see what’s fun and exciting for them to cook.”

The staff is from various countries and can offer cooking tips and suggest the right seasoning and pairings, Barkhouse said.

He also sells inexpensive street food and opened a small kitchen at the back of the store two weeks ago where he warms premade foods like samosas (75 cents each) and Middle Eastern spring rolls (3 for $5).

“In the winter, I hope to offer cooking classes to familiarize people,” said Barkhouse.

“This is all about breaking down barriers between cultural groups and helping them get to know one another.”

JB Global Market at 1200 London Rd. is open Monday – Saturday; 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Got a great idea for a business story?  Contact cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.