It was a blustery spring Saturday in Brooklyn Heights, and the customers shopping at Sahadi’s Importing Company on Atlantic Avenue had their heads covered — hijabs, snapbacks, church derbies, pork pies, bandannas, kufi skull caps — and their hands full of products, samples and numbered tickets. The tickets are needed to keep order and flow at this foodie dreamscape, which resembles an active bazaar with a jumble of containers and barrels, crowded counters and overstocked shelves. The action is all inside, but the store’s primary advocate was out front, telling stories.
Charlie Sahadi, the 72-year-old family patriarch, is a natural storyteller. And one of his favorites is the tale of the family business, which began in the late 19th century as an importing enterprise in Lower Manhattan. His father, Wade Sahadi, emigrated from Lebanon in the early 20th century to join the business. He eventually migrated to Brooklyn in the late 1940s, to the building on Atlantic Avenue between Court and Clinton Streets, where the shop still operates. The street looks very different today from the way it looked then, or even recently.
“If you told me 20 years ago,” Mr. Sahadi said, pointing out the front window of his office above the original storefront, “that I’d be operating across the street from Barneys New York, I would have had you institutionalized.”
Though many of the Middle Eastern businesses that once surrounded Sahadi’s have been replaced by ones catering to a different Brooklyn, Sahadi’s has endured. The store is practically a case study in how to run a business in a gentrifying neighborhood. So when a new kind of customer started showing up in the 1980s, someone who wanted foie gras in addition to baba ghanoush, Mr. Sahadi took notice.
“It made for much better conversation,” he said. It worked two ways: The new customers were picking up traditional Middle Eastern products, and the original clientele was happy to discover specialty items from other parts of the world.
This successful amalgamation of tastes and cultures also created a need for much more floor space, so Sahadi’s tripled in size, with additions in 1985 and 2012, on either side of the original storefront. Within the exposed-brick walls are offerings from all over the world, fresh and frozen, candied and brined. There are separate stations for baked and deli goods, fruits and nuts, cheese, coffee, desserts and Arabic pizza. The rows and rows of shelves seem to have everything from anywhere that can be put into a jar. All of it, from every station and every shelf, is presided over by an army of attendants who are always happy to explain or discuss or dispense a free taste.
For the past five years, Abby Sunshine, 35, has been regularly coming to Sahadi’s from Manhattan. “I love all the options,” she said. “But they also let me try everything, and that’s what I want.”
Even though Mr. Sahadi, after nearly 50 years in charge, supposedly retired in January, he often can still be found on site. The official operations of Sahadi’s have been passed to Mr. Sahadi’s brother Bob; his daughter, Christine Whelan, 49; and his son, Ron, 44.
It was Ron Sahadi who assumed his father’s usual post on that blustery Saturday, standing by the registers, observing the well-ordered throng, telling stories.
Published on The New York Times: Sahadi’s Offers a World of Things That Can Be Put in a Jar