Here's what that means and why it's great news for everyone.
When I heard the news that Sahadi’s, a family-run food emporium that’s been a staple in Brooklyn for 70 years, was expanding for the first time, I wanted to shout in a register that would rival Eagles fans last Sunday night. This is a grocery store expansion, so I’ll forgive anyone who just cocked an eyebrow. But, Sahadi’s opening a second location in Brooklyn’s Industry City later this year feels as momentous to me, a born Philadelphian, as the first Eagles Super Bowl title. It’s been a good week.
On the surface, Sahadi’s is a Middle Eastern grocery store, the largest of a few on a bustling stretch of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. The shop, which sits in a slightly awkward space, cobbled together between three old storefronts, is home to more than 200 glass and plastic bulk bins filled with nuts, dried fruit, seeds, and chocolates (get the dark chocolate covered almonds). There’s a cheese section and a prepared foods counter where the team scoops freshly made hummus and packs up just-rolled grape leaves by the dozen. There’s more, of course. But, Sahadi’s greatest value isn’t in any one of its departments or products that helped it nab the James Beard America’s Classic Award last year.
It’s this: It represents a dying way of food shopping that makes us all better cooks — a place where the team recognizes you, knows their top-notch products, and most importantly urges you to try what you’re buying, whether it’s cheese from a small producer in Vermont or both the 72 and the 74 percent dark chocolate disks they keep in stock to help you determine which is best for you’re baking project.
“I’m sure you can get almonds from 20 purveyors delivered to your door,” co-owner Christine Sahadi Whelan says, joking that if you want it walked up to your apartment door, you can have that too. “But you can’t get our almonds.” Those almonds are roasted all the way through in a Persian or Lebanese style, so there’s little to no chew at the center, just crisp sweetness. Prepared at the family’s facility near Industry City, “the almonds are pretty much roasted to order,” she adds.
When she, her husband Patrick Whelan, and her brother Ron Sahadi, the co-owners of the store, sat down to discuss expanding, they focused on what would “set us apart from the Amazons of the world,” she says. It’s a key question for any small grocer in America in 2018, a year that’s already seen the opening of a cashier-less store.
For the Sahadi’s family, what sets them apart extends beyond the freshly roasted nuts, and the nearly 100 pounds of hummus that’s made every day at 6 a.m. It’s also the baba ghanoush, the five granolas they make from scratch, the snack mixes, and the high level of quality control. “We like to be sure we’re producing the best products all the time,” she says.
Sahadi Whelan hopes to add to that roster at the new store, with an eye towards Lebanon and its surrounding region, and particularly the kind of hospitality you’ll find there. There are plans for a seasonal brunch menu with housemade merguez, and breads made on a saj, a domed Middle Eastern griddle. “We’re meeting with someone from Hot Bread Kitchen,” she adds, the New York-based non-profit bakery that employees immigrants, to build out their bread program with za’atar laced pies and Afghan flatbreads. All of this will be made in an open kitchen, another first for Sahadi’s.
She’s also enlisted a baker who currently makes the shop’s dried fruit-filled cookies, called maamoul, to help expand their pastry offerings. Diners will be able to sit and eat those sweets inside and outside if all goes to plan — and they may be able to enjoy them with cocktails inspired by Beirut, if a liquor license application goes through.
While the new store won’t be quite the same, she adds, (“it looks tremendous in comparison” to the shop on Atlantic) the core elements—sampling and discussing what you’re buying with the knowledgeable team—are “going to carry over.”
As cooks in 2018, that’s something we all need more of.