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Seeds, Spices, and Rare Family-Business Success

MaryAlice Parks – Syrian-American beat reporter

Last Monday, for the first time in 64 years, Sahadi’s Importing Co. in downtown Brooklyn did not open for business.

Although the closure was temporary – just a week for remodeling – the gourmet food store’s owner, Charlie Sahadi, was nervous. As the patriarch of his family’s 117-year-old business, he is preoccupied with continuity.

“Some businesses close for vacation over the summer. We never do,” said Charlie Sahadi, 68. “You have to be careful with people’s confidence. People have routines.”

Perhaps the family’s humility and slight paranoia has contributed to their rare success.

New York City is home to a number of time-honored companies, primarily banks and bars, that lay claim to continuous service since before the 19th century. However, there are only a few family-owned businesses in New York City older than Sahadis.

“It’s an institution,” said Jennifer Baron, who runs a cooking store nearby.

The century-old market has spanned three generations of the Sahadi family. After immigrating from Lebanon, Charlie Sahadi’s great-uncle, Ibrahim Sahadi, opened the family’s first store in 1895, on Washington Street in lower Manhattan. At the time, the neighborhood was referred to as “Little Syria” and was a hub of immigrants from the Middle East.

In 1919, Charlie Sahadi’s father, Wade Sahadi, came to the U.S. to join his uncle. He became a partner in the store but eventually parted ways. According to the family, Wade Sahadi was bought out in “chickpeas and lentils” and opened his own store just a few doors down. Shortly after, he moved his business to the Atlantic Avenue location. The Brooklyn store opened in 1948 and has been in the same space ever since.

Today, six family members work full time for the business: Charlie Sahadi along with his wife, younger brother, two children, and son-in-law. Beyond the retail store, they own a manufacturing plant and wholesale warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which ships their products as far as Denver, Colorado.

Each generation of Sahadis has grown the business. Charlie Sahadi said he urged his father to expand the store on Atlantic Avenue in the 1960s and the recent remodel was the brainchild of his daughter.

“We all wanted it. I just wanted to see it happen now,” said Christine Whalen, Charlie Sahadi’s daughter.
In May, the family began construction into the adjacent storefront they had previously used as a holiday gift shop. Monday, their retail store opened in the new, larger space.

The project is far from done. This week, construction workers were still installing refrigerators as customers navigated half-empty shelves and stacks of boxes.  Charlie Sahadi was not pleased with the state of the store.

“Dirt and dust and food do not mix well,” he said.

Now occupying three storefronts, the new Sahadi’s retains much of the original store’s design. Customers still approach the bulk-foods section first: tiers of simple glass jars, with homemade labels, and employees filling personal requests for dried nuts, seeds, and spices.

The expanded layout includes a new coffee bar (but no seats), a bakery, and a sliced-to-order cheese section. The walls are fresh and white. The old exposed-brick and archways remain.

What do shoppers think of the new space? “It’s fabulous,” said Franklin Stone, a middle-aged woman who lives in Cobble Hill. “I found things I didn’t even know they had, like four different kinds of feta cheese.”

“And I got to talk at length with the guy about what coffee I wanted,” Stone continued.

But for others, the ongoing construction was a bit of a distraction. “It’s too early to tell,” said Greg Kiss, from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who rode his bike to the store and was unsure about the remodel.

Plus, any change comes with trepidation. “It will lose a bit of its charm,” Kiss added. “You used to be able to see the decades, things stuffed in every corner.”

Still, there is no denying that Sahadi’s is among a rare set of family businesses. According to John Ward, a professor of family businesses at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University, only 13 percent of family businesses survive until the third generation and less than five percent make it to the fourth.

Often speaking over each at their adjacent desks above the store on a recent day, it was clear that a sense of shared ownership and teamwork permeates the family. The importance of relationships extends to the customers too. Take hummus for example. Day to day, the store offers two kinds, regular and spicy. But after a sampling with customers during a recent street fair, they are now rotating specialty flavors through too, like black olive and roasted red pepper.

“In the Middle East, there is only one hummus,” said Charlie Sahadi. To him, the different flavors in the U.S. incorporate different kinds of people. He said he enjoys when customers give suggestions or share recipes.

The Sahadis pride themselves on being a communal store. “A food supplier is a real part of people’s lives, in the good times and the bad,” said Charlie Sahadi, adding that people need food for funerals as much as for birthdays.

“I can be there for so many people at so many times.”

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Syrian Protest Unites and Divides Bay Ridge

Families gather in Leif Ericson Park before the protest. Photo by MaryAlice Parks.

MaryAlice Parks, Syrian Beat Reporter~

“One, two, three, four. Bashar Assad out the door.” Their chanting could be heard blocks away. “Five, six, seven, eight. Stop the killing, stop the hate.”

Over 200 people gathered on Saturday in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Arab-American communities in New York City, to show support for the rebels fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.  Although the revolution is thousands of miles away, the march demonstrated how outrage over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria is uniting people here in New York.

In the crowd there were people from Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, and other countries across the Middle East. Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, addressed the group before the march began. “I am Palestinian-American, and I am today a Syrian. I have always been a Syrian,” she punctuated. “We are all Syrians here today.”

Bassam Maalouf, a Christian Syrian who participated,  explained that the revolution has brought Christians and Muslims from the country together. “At first, a lot of Christians were scared. Is it an Islamic revolution? But month after month people saw what this criminal is doing.” According to Maalouf, people who were skeptical are coming around. “They’re convinced now that this regime is the obstacle.”

The group’s message was clear; they were pro-revolution and anti-President Assad. Young and old, everyone gathered seemed to have a sign, some displayed graphic images of children who had died in the fighting, others called President Bashar Al-Assad a terrorist. One showed President Obama and read, “How much Syrian blood will it take to buy your election?”

The event began at Leif Ericson Park, near the corner of Sixth Avenue and 67th Street. A series of impassioned speakers, including volunteers and leaders from the Arab-American community in New York City, addressed participants in front of a Syrian opposition flag that hung on the park’s chain-link fence. They called for the U.S. to get involved in Syria. They lead prayers for the children who have been killed in the fighting.  A representative from UNICEF collected checks for a fund for Syrian children. She estimated $300 was raised at the event, though a number of people said they donated online.

Around 5 p.m., event organizers lead the walkers from the park to Fifth Avenue, a busy, commercial street. The group marched south along Fifth  Avenue for over a mile before looping back to the park. When they arrived at the park again, it was getting dark. Many participants stayed and sang national songs from Syria in Arabic until dispersed by the police.

The march revealed ongoing discord and skepticism, both within the Arab-American community and Bay Ridge. During the march, police broke up a small fight between demonstrators and a bystander who made comments supporting the Assad regime.

“There are also some divisions,” said Donna Moustapha, a 31-year-old Syrian-American. “That is going to be the case any time you have something as big as a revolution. But ultimately, we have to be on the side of humanity.”

Despite the large Arab presence, Bay Ridge is diverse. People in the neighborhood live close together, yet some remain worlds apart. Markets offering halal meat are crammed between Irish pubs.  Italian-Americans, with strong Brooklyn accents, make up the single largest ethnic group in the area.

“Islamic spring? More like terrorist spring,” asserted one man, who introduced himself as Micky V. and watched the group go by along  Fifth Avenue. “They think they are supporting democracy, meanwhile they are supporting the terrorists. They are just trading one regime for the other.”

Another middle-aged man from the neighborhood, Steve, who declined to give his last name, watched the march from inside a bar a few blocks away. He did not understand why it was being held in Bay Ridge. “They should take it up to somebody who would care. Go to the U.N.,” he said. “No one really cares. Maybe down further in the other part of the neighborhood, where the other Arab community lives.”

But other onlookers expressed sympathy. Among the headscarves and Arabic chatter, Janine Louqet stood out. She is not Arab. She is a school bus driver from New Jersey. She was moved by images of violence in Syria. “You see a number and it is easy to glance over it. When you see pictures, you can’t glance over.” Hesitating, she removed her glasses and pressed the corners of her eyes to stop the tears. “I drive children and it got to me. I am picking up children in their frilly little dresses, but there are other kids that are being murdered and it got to me. That’s why I’m here.”

Those walking, Arab or not, Syrian or not, were dedicated.  A young woman who wore a long, austere, black Islamic robe for the walk, but when she moved, there was a glimpse of glitter underneath. “I have to go to a bridal shower right after. I am going to be so late, but I don’t care,” she explained. “I have my heels in my bag. I am going to walk in my dress and Converse.”

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