Brooklyn has changed a lot over the past few years. The abandoned East River waterfront in Williamsburg is now filled with fifteen-story condos that are almost entirely glass. The old train yards dividing Park Slope from Fort Greene have been razed to build a stadium for the Nets basketball team. The block of Atlantic Avenue between Court and Clinton, long the home of Middle Eastern hole-in-the-walls, a Chinese fruit market, and a Key Food supermarket, now sports a Trader Joe’s on one corner and a Barney’s of New York next to it. The most famous store on that block, however, isn’t new, nor is it a national name. It’s the Sahadi Importing Company’s retail store, and it’s been on the north side of the street since 1948. It’s old school Downtown Brooklyn. Ask any Brooklynite about Sahadi’s, and if they’ve been there they’ll almost certainly proclaim, “That place is great.” If they don’t know it and you do, you’ll almost certainly proclaim, “You have to go there.” It’s an institution. Its story is a story of love and plenty.
Sahadi’s is a specialty foods outfit, and it’s most famous for its bulk section—a throwback to the America in which your shopkeeper scooped your flour or oats from a fat wooden barrel to weigh on a scale. Sahadi’s switched from barrels to clear plastic bins a few years back, but the aesthetics and customer service remain. In need of, let’s say, bulgur wheat? They have it cut to four different coarsenesses. Dates? Sourced from nine regions of the world, from Pakistan to Jordan to California. Olives? Thirty-two kinds, plus pickled baby red eggplant and excellent giardiniera (and far cheaper than at Whole Foods, by the way). Dried fruit? Every one you can think of, plus kiwis and pears, sulfured or non. Almonds? Twelve kinds, from blanched to cinnamon roasted. Almond flour? Check. Chestnut flour? Check. Pomegranate molasses? Check. This is the kind of place where pistachios are imported from half a dozen countries and exhibit the broad spectrum of color and flavor worthy of the same attention gourmands pay to cheese. Pluck a numbered ticket from the red deli dispenser and wait to be called. While you’re waiting, browse. Don’t know what that herb mloukia, imported from Syria, is used for? Wait for one of the men in blue aprons to call your number: he’ll answer your questions and measure everything you want out for you. Ask for a taste, and he’ll help with that too. Sahadi’s, in short, is paradise.
You’ll most likely have to wait a bit to be served, of course, particularly if you visit on a weekend. Walk through the front doors on any Saturday and you’ll walk into a strange blend of chaos and order. The store is packed to every wall with customers who are constantly trying to squeeze around each other to scope out the wares while the blue-aproned men glide back and forth filling orders. Everybody involved could whisper and there’d still be a din. Claustrophobia is a risk for the tense or uninitiated. Those men in the blue aprons, though, go about their work with easy smiles of detachment or stoic calm. They weave around the bodies, scoop from the buckets and weigh the bags, pinch red twist-ties to cinch them closed, make light conversation with that moment’s customer, letting her taste an olive from the Sicilian mix. The job requires the cool of a Nets forward, an immunity to the crush and calls of the crowd. “The first question on the application,” says Charlie Sahadi, one of the owners, “is, ‘Are you crazy?’ If you say yes, you get the job.” Then he laughs.
Sahadi’s took root in America in 1895 when Abrahim Sahadi, a Lebanese immigrant, opened A. Sahadi and Company, on Washington Street in downtown Manhattan, to sell to the families emigrating in increasing numbers from the declining Ottoman Empire. In addition to the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians moved into the neighborhood and set up shop. In 1919 Abrahim’s nephew Wade joined the business, and the two men worked to support the rest of the family as they emigrated. After working side by side with Abrahim for twenty-two years, Wade became a junior partner. Other neighborhood markets and merchants came and went.
Then, in 1941, the younger man struck out on his own. The official history published on the company Web site states: “The younger and more aggressive Wade, and his more content uncle, had some differences of opinion and Wade decided to go into business on his own.” Charlie simplifies things even further. “I’ll say they had a parting of ways,” he says of his father and great-uncle, smiling and shrugging his shoulders in acknowledgment that family politics requires diplomatic language. “He was bought out with lentils and chickpeas and this and that,” he says. “I have three ledger pages listing the merchandise he was bought out with. So he took his product and opened his own store, the Manhattan Sahadi Importing Company, a block away.”
A block away?
“Yes, that made us a tighter family, yes,” he says, and bursts into laughter.
Charlie Sahadi is full of laughter. He also speaks quickly and anticipates questions, a New Yorker through and through. He was born in 1944, two years before the Manhattan shop was displaced by construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and Charlie’s father moved operations to Brooklyn, and four before the business opened in the current store. Charlie officially joined in the early 1960s, and his younger brother Robert in the early 1970s. Charlie’s wife Aubrey joined once the kids were grown and out of the house, and his son Ron and daughter Christine are now co-owners with their father and uncle. They are significant distributors of Al Wadi foods, imported from the Middle East, as well as of major Asian and European brands like Ka-Me and Bahlsen. In 1999 Sahadi’s expanded their wholesale component to include production of their own house brand of Middle Eastern specialties. They built a sixteenthousand- square-foot plant and warehouse a few miles south of the store and now distribute the Sahadi brand to retail merchants in thirty-five states. The Sahadis are proud that the family name is associated with quality, and they are obviously driven by the desire—so much a part of American mythology as to be a borderline fairy tale—to keep growing, keep succeeding, keep making moves.
“We’re not in the $ 8 billion range that Trader Joe’s is,” Charlie says, “but in our own little world we are pretty competitive. We give people fresh products at fair prices every day of the year except Sunday.”
“We still believe that Sunday is a day for family,” says Charlie. And so Sahadi’s keeps alive another part of the American fairy tale.
The multigenerational family business is an endangered species these days. Main Street restaurateurs and food merchants must play a rigged game against titanic Wall Street–financed national and multinational restaurant and grocery store chains. But while so many of our cities acquiesce to a homogenized roster of big-name restaurant chains and supermarkets whose products look and taste the same in California as they do in Maine, Sahadi’s in Brooklyn stays vital. In 2010, while most businesses contracted under the weight of the recession, Sahadi’s opened a second store on the same block, with plans to connect it to the main store by early 2012.
What’s the secret?
Part of it is the product. Sahadi’s offers things you’d have a hard time finding elsewhere in the city, if you could find them at all. This is why business has thrived, rather than shrunk, since Trader Joe’s (a “destination store,” as Charlie puts it) moved into the neighborhood in 2008 and attracted more customers to the block. Though many stores sell tahini, for instance, there surely aren’t many others that carry eleven kinds of it, let alone shelving it alongside unfamiliar goodies you’re tempted to buy because, though you can’t think of any particular use for them, their mere existence promises as-yet-undiscovered possibilities. Hazelnut praline paste? “Surely I can use this in something,” you think, dropping it into your basket. “Like eating it with a spoon.”
Part of the secret is the fair prices, too, and part is the fact that you can weigh and buy only as much of most products as you need, a true rarity. (Charlie tells a story about the day that ended their policy of selling spices in the same way—a day in which he spent forty-five minutes measuring out an ounce of all thirty-seven spices for a grand total sale of eighteen bucks. Now the spices are prepackaged.) And part of Sahadi’s secret is that the owners and employees don’t just serve people; they seem to actually like them.
One generalization about New Yorkers is that we are rude. This isn’t true; New Yorkers are generally helpful and, given the melting pot aspect of the city, we tend to be particularly adept at interacting cordially with people from all over the social, cultural, and economic spectrums. But the city is a lot to take, particularly the nucleus of Manhattan during the workweek. So many people live here, so many people buy and sell here, that there is too much simply going on for your average Joe or Jane to be able to give smiling attention to everyone who deserves it. But the employees of Sahadi’s do and, in a climate in which a featureless chain like Applebee’s trademarks the phrase “There’s No Place Like the Neighborhood,” that true personal touch makes a tremendous impression. It feels good to shop in a store at which the employees obviously like working and are prepared to engage you in genuine conversation. It feels good to have Charlie greet you by name and ask about your family. Sahadi’s manages to convey in some small but very real way that it values you as an individual, even if you are simply trying to slide your way through the throng to the far edge of the room to consider if you want the orange-infused dried cranberries, the raspberry-infused cranberries, or just plain old dried cranberries.
The Sahadis have cultivated this environment. When asked what single accomplishment he is most proud of, Charlie doesn’t mention his forebears or his capital growth or his name being stamped on cans of ful mudammas being shipped all over the country. He says, “I’m just very proud to see families come in with children and grandchildren. Here I watch these little kids grow up to be old enough to have their own kids. When I ask you how your family is, I’m really asking you how’s your family. It’s not a way to waste thirty seconds of your time and mine.”
Part of this attitude, admittedly, is a product of Charlie’s age and position. As a younger man, he worked long hours to pay the bills that every family man needs to pay. He knew faces, but his focus was on money, not names. But two of his three children tend more of the operations now. The new storefront and expansion were their ideas, and Charlie understands that they are “younger blood who want to make their mark.” So Charlie can step back a little bit. His finances are secure. He can afford to focus on joy, not dollars, though it is a happy and lucky coincidence that the business his family has built is the conduit for that joy.
Sahadi’s sources their wares from all over the planet. (A few years back, when global politics were different, they carried an Iranian pistachio whose complexity deserved the same scrutiny given to excellent wine.) For decades their seven varieties of baking chocolate have come from a fourth-generation chocolate maker in San Francisco. Charlie and his brother Robert like buying from another family business. They can relate. They also know, however, that working with family can be stressful, and that the existence of a business as family tradition can create pressures. Charlie’s feelings weren’t hurt when his children didn’t jump into the business at the same young age he did. He was, and remains, comfortable with family members seeing the company as something to fall back on.
“I don’t want someone to join in because you can make money,” he says, no longer laughing, but still smiling. “Money’s important, but if you have to go to work every day and you don’t like what you do, it’s drudgery. You’re not going to be good at it because you’re being dictated to by only money, not by love of what you do. I’ve been blessed.”
Love is a concept very much on Charlie’s mind. When speaking about his grandchildren, he says unabashedly, “We have so much love in our bodies,” and the pleasure he takes from being part of the happy and sad occasions in his customers’ lives comes up again and again in conversation. It’s a level of holistic empathy that transcends taking pleasure in others’ good fortunes or sympathizing with their losses. He is proud that his business is popular with people from a variety of ethnic groups, and though that diversity is certainly a strong business position, it is obvious that Charlie relishes Sahadi’s inclusiveness as a good in itself.
“Look, we have Algerian,” he says, pointing at one of his blue-aproned men with his right arm, “and we have Syrian,” he says, pointing at another with his left. “We have Egyptian, Irish–Puerto Rican, Moroccan, Yemeni, African American.” Nearly all of these people have worked in the store for at least the better part of a decade. Sahadi’s is a family business, but it seems also to be on some level business-as-family—a way for Charlie to expand his family beyond his own flesh and blood and culture. “People think you take better care of your own,” he says. “But who’s your own?”
The implication, of course, is that we are all our own. That is the hope, and maybe it’s mostly a myth as well (or at least not enough of us believe so strongly in the myth that we make it true). Anyone entering Sahadi’s for the first time can easily discern a few things. The framed newspaper clips hanging on the walls tell a story of multiple generations of a Lebanese-American family building something together. A look around testifies to the diversity of the staff. But maybe the place would reveal its nature even without that evidence. Maybe many of us would take deep pleasure in buying our food someplace like Sahadi’s—someplace that values the individual touch and that welcomes us warmly, regardless of the background that might be surmised from our faces. For most of humankind’s history our primary mission has been to get enough to eat; we’ve delegated responsibility in that enterprise to people we could trust, to those we kept close and made into families and tribes. Our families, in other words, are those we choose as kin. In an American society that increasingly treats the efficiency of sameness as an imperative, Sahadi’s offers a taste of the way we used to be.