This week, another major grocery retailer entered the battle for the growing Middle Eastern food market in Chicagoland offering a wide range of Arab food products. The past half century has seen Arab food migrate from the shelves of small ethnic neighborhood food stores to the premium shelves of the largest national chains. Chicagoland has been no exception, just a late entry to the market
By Ray Hanania
When I was a kid, my mother would actually take an empty suitcase with her when she traveled back to visit her family and relatives in Bethlehem in Occupied Palestine.
Of course, in the 1950s, no one cared what you brought on an airplane. Mom used the empty suitcase to fill up with Middle East and Arabian food products that she couldn’t find in local grocery stores in Chicago, where she settled when she married my father.
The alternative was to drive to Dearborn and buy food items there, but oftentimes the stores didn’t have the food ingredients that were needed and that would be quite a disappointment after sitting five hours in a car on the old expressway driving through Indiana and then into Michigan. Flying to the Middle East was more expensive, but rewarding.
Today, though, you only have to go outside your home to the nearest major food retailer to find Arab recipe ingredients. And it’s not just Arabs buying those products. With the rise in popularity of the health-driven Mediterranean Diet, and the increased number of American soldiers who served in the middle East over the past two decades, Middle Eastern food has become very popular with mainstream Americans.
But it wasn’t always so.
When my mom would fly us to Palestine, we’d not only get to visit relatives, but we’d also get to eat great food. It was not easy to find the ingredients to make a Tabouli salad. You needed Tahini, a sesame seed paste, and cracked wheat (burghul). Back then, the only place you could find those products was in the Middle East.
There were a few ingredients we could get right here in America, like grape leaves to make the stuffed lamb and rice dish of the same name. Mom, or dad, would pull the car over whenever they saw wild grapevines growing on the side of the road. We’d pick the leaves and stuff them in plastic bags that my mom would then store in the big “freezer” that was in addition to the new refrigerator that replaced the old “ice box.”
The difficulty in getting all of the needed ingredients to make a good Arabian food dish probably explains why Arab moms made so much Arabian food. When they did get the ingredients, they would go overboard making enough food to last a week. Or, to feed 20 people.
If there is one thing about Arabs. They love emotion. They love to argue about politics. And, they love to eat great Middle East foods.
In the middle of the 1960s, the trips to Palestine were replaced by trips to rare grocery stores that started to cater to the Middle East shoppers. Many American Arabs at first opened grocery stores in White communities, but Whites often viewed the dark, Olive-skinned immigrants as being Black. And in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, race relations were at their worst. So the Arab grocers relocated and opened stores in African American communities where they were accepted.
The inner-city Arab stores carried mostly mainstream food products. But a small group of Arab grocers opened stores on the borders of the African American community and the White community, usually in the buffer zones inhabited by Hispanics. American Arabs often easily blended in as “Hispanics,” not only because they looked so much alike, but because much of the Arab immigration and refugee flight from Israeli oppression in Palestine pushed them to South America where life was even more comfortable and Middle East immigrants faced less discrimination and racist hate than they faced in America.
By the 1980s, you could easily find the basic ingredients like Tahini for salads and even hummus, spices and specialty food ingredients like za’atar and even lamb. Lamb is the meat food base of the Middle East. A Middle East meal just doesn’t taste the same with beef, although for many Arabs in the early years, that’s what they used.
Over the past few years, several grocery chains started to add Middle East food products to their inventories including in the Southwest suburban area where most of Chicagoland’s 450,000 American Arabs live. The two big stores were Tonys Finer Foods and Shop & Save, both in Bridgeview which is often erroneously viewed as the heart of the American Arab community because the region’s first mosque was built there just west of Harlem and 90th Street. Ironically, the majority of Arabs in Chicagoland are actually Christians, although Muslims stand out more in American society because of the preference of some Muslim women to wear Hijabs (head coverings).
When you drive through Bridgeview, you think you are in the heart of the Arab community, but the bigger populations of Arabs are actually in Oak Lawn, Palos Heights and Orland Park with lesser populations in the communities around them like Bridgeview.
Tonys Finer Foods and Shop & Save both began offering Arab and Middle Eastern food products in their stores in the 1990s. And, being larger retail establishments, they offered lower pricing than the smaller Arab owned stores because the larger stores could buy products in bulk and benefit from a significant cost savings.
Last week, another store entered the regional battle for Middle East consumers and the growing Ethnic American food market that includes many that have been around for years like Italian foods, Greek Foods, Hispanic Foods and Asian foods.
Pete’s Fresh Market offers nearly 70,000 square feet of high tech food displays and salad bars and meat buffets that offer not only the traditional ethnic selections like tamales, Italian pastas and Greek selections, but now also freshly made Arab food items like tabouli and lamb stuffed meat pies. Pete’s has also taken the Arab food items and made them equal to the food displays offering Italian, Greek, Asian and Hispanic food items.
Jewel was one of the first to offer an ethnic section, but it never really grew to compete with the growing market demand.
Grocery stores are a natural part of our life experiences. When my wife asks me to go pick up a gallon on milk, I often come home with 15 other food products. Grocery shopping is fun, and for most ethnic immigrants, its really an experience that symbolizes the freedom that we didn’t have living in oppressive homelands in the Middle East. Grocery stores symbolize our new freedom as Americans. We don’t have to struggle to get the foods we want. Now, finding a job is a different story, of course, and lately in today’s deteriorating economy, it’s not easy.
But when I go to the ethnic sections of a grocery store, I always go there for a specific food. For me, my “milk” is now “tabouli.” Pete’s Fresh Grocery offers Tabouli in the deli buffet section and it taste great. Unfortunately, they don’t have it available all the time. When I don’t find “Milk” at one store, I’ll drive somewhere else to find it, and then buy the other 15 products I bring home.
It’s the same with tabouli for me. So I don’t mind the competition at all. It’s good to have Tony’s, Pete’s and Shop & Save all near each other. It’s good for the market. It’s good for the consumer. And, it’s even good for the three competing stores.
Why do you think Burger King, McDonalds and Wendy’s all open stores right across from each other? Because they know that together they create a huge market traffic and that demands sometimes vary. It’s good business to have variety. In increase revenues for everyone.
What keeps customers coming is not only the availability of the food items you want, but also the quality of the food. The better stores with the better quality food (tabouli in my case) will see me more often than the other stores. I’ll always stop at both because I appreciate the effort and concern that all of the stores show, whether it’s Jewel, Pet’es Fresh Market, Tony’s Finer Foods or Shop & Save. They deserve and will get my support.
That’s just the way the falafel bounces.