CHARLIE SAHADI INTERVIEW
[Interviewed by Mary Ann DiNapoli (MDN) & Esther Regelson (ER)]
CS: My name is Charlie Sahadi, I am 74 years old, and I’m a grocer.
My father’s uncle Abrahim must’ve come in the 1890’s or earlier, maybe 1885-90, I don’t know for sure. He was the first Sahadi that opened the business here. He opened A. Sahadi & Company in 1895 on Washington Street in what’s now called “Little Syria.” My dad came after him. My dad was born in 1901, came to America in 1920.
He worked with his uncle from 1920 till 1941, when they had a parting of ways, which means they had an argument, and my dad had become a small partner in the business at the time. And he was bought out with chick peas and lentils and feta cheese and olives. And I still have the ledger pages to prove that. And he moved five or six doors from them and opened Sahadi Importing, so there was an A. Sahadi & Company and a Sahadi Importing on Washington Street from 1941 until we moved to Brooklyn in 1948.
Now, I believe the uncle had four brothers.
I just recently found that the others brothers all came also, except my grandfather. He did not come. I don’t know if he died before thatI don’t know the history of my own family. But 3 of the other brothers came. I don’t know how many actually went into business with Rahim. Sometimes their letterhead said A. Sahadi & Company, sometimes it said Sahadi Brothers. I don’t know if that was an on again off again situation. I’m not sure exactly how that worked. Again that was about 50 years before I was born, so we’re sort of guessing
George and Emil, brothers, and my dad were all nephews for Abrahim. Abrahim did not have any children. So when my dad left, George and Emil stayed with Abrahim at A. Sahadi & Company until he died. And I think Emil died just before that. Emil died very young. So George Sahadi was the owner actually of A. Sahadi & Company.
A Sahadi & Company was sold to Knox Gelatin in 1967. In 1972 Lipton Tea bought Knox Gelatin, which owns A. Sahadi. So A. Sahadi Company was a division of Lipton until 1985 when they dissolved the company.
I think Najib and Salim were brothers of Abrahim. Fred might have been the oldest nephew. I mean, I had a cousin Fred. I don’t know if they ran it as two separate corporations. I believe they were in the same building.
They had several buildings there because they did manufacturing, distribution. They did retail later, but I’m not sure if retail was being done at that time.
When George Sahadi had the company there was a store on Washington Street, A. Sahadi & Company store and people would go in there and buy their products from A. Sahadi & Company. It was right under the factory. It was like they set up a little outlet under the manufacturing plant.
I would say for sure from the mid-50’s till ’67 when they sold the business to Knox Gelatin, cause when Knox bought it they moved out to Moonachie, New Jersey where they set up a beautiful plant out there and that’s where they operated until they closed in 1985.
1895 until 1967, maybe 68, they moved and then as I say, Lipton bought them.
Abe was my grandfather’s brother, and my grandfather’s name was Kalil, then my dad, Wade, or Wadia, in Arabic, Wadia, but he always called himself Wade here. His name was Wade Kalil Sahadi. His father’s name I believe was Kalil Wade Sahadi. See, I’m Charles Wade Sahadi. Charles is Kalil in English. So I’m Charles Wade Sahadi, so I have my dad’s name. The next brother to me was Richard, Richard Albert Sahadi, and my other brother is Robert Wade Sahadi, but he goes under Bob Wade Sahadi, we’ll put it that way. He’s 8 and a half years younger than I am. And then I have 3 kids and neither of my brothers have children, so. Actually my son has 2 daughters. My two daughters have a boy and a girl, so actually the name stops here now.
You know, you can’t make things happen. It just happened that both daughters had a boy and a girl. See, if you go into our store, behind the register my ugly picture and six beautiful grandchildren around me.
I don’t know why they had a fight, an argument, or a discussion or whatever it was. Again, I wasn’t privy to that. I was born 4 years later. I would assume they argued about something in business. My dad was the travelling salesman for A. Sahadi & Company. And he would get on the train and he’d go to Detroit, he’d go to Chicago, he’d go to different places. And he’d be in Detroit doing some business with people, and he’d say, “I gotta get going. I gotta get back to the train.” “Ah! Spend the night with us!” So many people, they knew him and liked him and he spent the night with them.
Just a quick story. When he left, when they split, the uncle said nasty things about the nephew. Why? Because he opened Sahadi Importing. He opened another Sahadi Company, and the uncle was, “Oh, what if they mix up one with the other?”
So he started blackballing him by saying he’s not good and this and that and everybody would write back to him, “What do you mean? He stays at my house when he’s here. He’s a wonderful guest to have. He’s a wonderful person. What do you mean he’s no good?” So I mean he had built up rapport by being a travelling salesman, that people knew him and liked him. So when he started his business he had a sort of ready made audience to start with. He wasn’t a manufacturer of the product but he was competitive and was able to get started that way.
My earliest memory is Atlantic Avenue. I remember the nailing the brackets into the wall to put shelves up when they were doing the store. The man that my dad took as a partner, Nick Sabah, his trade before that was carpenter. And when they were doing the store a lot of the work in the store was done by him. That’s my earliest recollection.
I was born in ’44, we moved in ’48. So I wasn’t born on Washington Street, I was born on Atlantic Avenue. And we were on Washington Street from ’41 to ’48. Seven years there as Sahadi Importing, but I never saw the store so I know nothing about it at all, but I don’t remember ever being on Washington Street.
I think we were at 61, but you’d have to go to 1941 to find that out. I mean, I’m saying it’s 5, 6 doors away, probably on the same side of the street.
When we got married, Audrey and I, 10 people cancelled two weeks before the wedding. They cancelled because their mother told them that Wade, my dad, was not very nice to them, so they cancelled at the last minute.
Subsequently, when my daughter and my cousin Sonia got married, we had more Sahadi’s at all of those weddings, because I’m a family man and I was determined to get people together whether they liked it or not. Everybody had a blast because it was the right thing to do, and I felt very proud of that.
You know, Lebanon is a beautiful country, a wonderful place to live if you have money. If you don’t have money you have to go somewhere to make money in order to support your family or yourself. I mean Lebanon’s been warring for years also. I’m not a historian so I don’t know that exactly, but I think that possibly there was something going on, and he came…
I found out later that the other brothers were here because all of my cousins that are here, they’re all born in America. I never put two and two together, so at least 3 brothers came over and had their families here in the Untied States. I never knew any of the uncles. Even this Abrahim, who was alive till ’59, I was 15 years old in ’59 . But there was a feud there. We weren’t talking. So, except for the picture that we took to the archives at Ellis Island, I never met the man.
Again, I don’t have that history. I got interested in the history of the family, of course, when? When all the elders were gone. It’s not something that’s very easy to go back to. A cousin of mine in Lebanon was trying to research it from his side and he came up against a lot of blank walls, which did not give us any real information
As an example, my cousin, Yvette Sahadi Milke (sp?), we were at a funeral one day. And we happened to be in the funeral car with her. And in the 45 minutes or hour I was in the car with her I learned more about my family.
She started to talk, and I said to her, “I wish I had a tape recorder.” But I didn’t. But she’s gone. They’re all dead. I mean, she would probably be 100 now. Basically that whole generation is gone. So yeah, I did have about 6 or 7 cousins like that. Some of them were more family oriented than others, meaning they knew more about the intriguing things that the family did, but Yvette happened to be spot on. She knew exactly what to tell me and unfortunately I didn’t take the ball and run with it at the time, and I do regret it many times when I think back, because I do regret it many times now when I think back, because you know, I try not to make those kind of mistakes anymore with new things coming up because you can’t replace what was there before. It’s very hard to fill in the blanks.
I mean, God rest him, if my dad was still alive he would be 117 today. So, I mean, you’re talking a completely different generation. There’s nobody around.
You know, we didn’t just pop out of a box and show up here. You know, the reason I do oral histories is because I want my kids, who’ve heard my speeches 100 times, but if they ever have the reason to look up things, I have the oral history at the Brooklyn Historical Society and this now. I like doing it because I know what I know and I’d like to get it out there for someone else to know what I know. I don’t want others to be in the same situation that I ended up in. It’s one of the sorriest things in my life that I didn’t get interested in until too late.
I mean, until I talked to my cousin Jim, who lives in California now. And he was the one who’d say, “Oh my dad was partners with Uncle Rahim.” Rahim is Abraham in Arabic. And I didn’t know that. And I’m just realizing that all these cousins were born here, so the uncles had to be here! But again, I never put two and two together. I always assumed they stayed in Lebanon, but then how did all my father’s first cousins, how did they all get here?
We’re from Zahle…
I just know I have the dates down. I know 1895, but again, why, how? And, I mean, I imagine he came with some money, because if he didn’t have money how did he start a business? But I don’t know that.
He lived in Bayonne, New Jersey. In fact my dad lived in Bayonne, New Jersey also. I don’t know why, but that’s where they started. They’d commute from Jersey to Manhattan.
I remember my father’s brothers, Jimmy and Nicholas, when they came to this country they lived in Bayonne with him. My late Uncle Jimmy, he’s the curious one in the family. He actually went to Bayonne, and he went to the house, and he actually went in and told them, “I lived here 20 years ago, or 30 years ago.” That’s how I know Bayonne is in our life.
You know, I know the name Bayonne, but why that was the place? Maybe the rents were cheaper there. I’ve lived in Bay Ridge all my life, so I know what I know.
My father’s brother Nicholas was our exporter. When we opened Sahadi Importing Company, Nicholas was the guy that gathered merchandise, filled containers and sent them to us. So he did a definite contact with his brother.
Jamil, Jimmy, dealt with A. Sahadi & Company. He dealt with his cousins George and Emil and he was the shipper to them. So there was contact on both sides with their Lebanese counterparts. My cousin’s name is Rahim also – He does some of the shipping for this building here. Some of the stuff that we get here comes from him also. So we’re still tied with family that continued that way.
We started in 1941. I don’t know when they actually started bringing stuff in. At the beginning we were mainly retail. On Atlantic Avenue we were doing wholesale. I went to work full time in ’64. From 13 and up I was there on Saturdays – We did some importing. We must have put it in public warehouse and brought the product to the store when we needed it. Again, I wasn’t observing at that time. I wanted to play basketball, and my dad wanted me to come to the store. I’m glad he did though because I wouldn’t have gotten as involved and I’m fortunate to love what I’ve done for the last 55 years. I’ve enjoyed it and made some wonderful friends, and I still go in now as a retired person. I go in on Tuesdays and I get a recharge, because I see lots of these people that I’ve grown up with or they’ve grown up with me.
MDN: I grew up with you Charlie!
We go back a long way!
You know, A. Sahadi & Company was a manufacturer. They manufactured tahini, they manufactured bulgur, they manufactured halvah. Before Joyva started making halvah in the United States, A. Sahadi was doing halvah in the United States… I don’t know what year that was. I assume that one of the earliest things they did was start manufacturing. The question is where did the money come from? I assume he had money when he came, and I don’t know what he did before he got here and I don’t know how old he was when he came. But the manufacturing I think, led to importing other products in order to build a line to sell those products.
With Joyva, again it’s probably myth, but evidently the RadutzkyBrothers who owned Joyva used to buy the tahini from Sahadi and the Sahadi family taught them how to make halvah. Again, it’s a story. I don’t know if it’s true. They started in 1907 I believe. We worked very well together. People say Jews and Arabs can’t work together. I worked with Joyva for 55 years. I don’t think we ever had a negative word with each other on anything. You know, when you deal with good people you don’t care where they’re from, and that’s the way I feel about business.
Joyvah’s still manufacturing it. The halvah we sell is Joyvah’s. We are manufacturers of nuts and stuff, but we’re not halvah makers. So we do bring in halvah from Lebanon. We import from this company. We import their whole line and distribute it in the United States. There’s three of us, one here, one in the middle of the country and one on the West Coast. So it’s nice. It limits the competition. We don’t bang each other over the head.
So anyway, they started with manufacturing. And the bulgur wheat – Most of the bulgur wheat now is made out on the West Coast, but this was made here in New York, and I don’t know where they got the money to get the machines, to get the thing set up. I mean I give them a lot of credit. When you come over with basically nothing, and you build it into a nice business, you know, I tip my hat to them.
Bulgur is a wheat product. It’s a whole wheat. It’s fine, medium, coarse and extra coarse depending on what the application is. If you’re making raw kibbe, you want number one which is very fine. If you’re making cooked kibbe, you want number two which gives a little more substance to the finished product. If you get number three you’re gonna use it as a rice substitute. If you get number four it like getting medium grain or long grain rice. And, there’s a different application for everything. Number one and number two are by far the best sellers. The three and four are not nearly as much as the other. And then there’s the whole and shelled wheat. The Italians use the whole wheat without the shell, the grano, to make grano pies. And we in New York, we were supplying most of the major manufacturers here – We were the biggest at the time and we had the New York representation on them.
And in the church when you make a memorial mass, you make sleeha and you hand it out to the parishioners sort of as a “Thank you for coming” and “This is a reminder of our loved one who died.”
We opened on Atlantic Avenue in 1948. My dad bought the building on Atlantic in 1946. And I think there was a barber shop on the main floor and he left in ’48 and Sahadi Importing opened on Atlantic in ’48. In 1977 the building next door to us was up for sale. And my dad had told me along the line, “If the building next to you becomes available you must buy it.”
So the building next to us comes available. It’s a double storefront – 189 and 191. And it looked like a telephone number about this long. I said, “How the heck are we gonna buy this building?” So we begged borrowed and stole and did whatever we had to and we came up with a down payment and we bought the building. You look at it today and you’d say you must’ve gone in with a gun and stolen it, because the value today as opposed to the value then is not in the same realm at all.
So anyway, we bought the building in ’77. We used it ourself as a separate store until 1984/85 when we opened the wall for 189. And my daughter Christine was in college at the time. She’s a business major. And Christine is one of these young ladies that has a mind of her own.
She calls me up and she says, “Dad, I’m leaving here.” We were just starting the renovation. She said, “You know the fastest growing part of specialty foods is the prepared food section.” So we built a we built a kitchen first to her dimensions, and then we built a small deli because we didn’t know if it was gonna do it. She and my wife were the dishwasher, they were the orderers, they were the cleaners, they were the bakers, and the whole department was run by Audrey and Christine. And as we get it set up she said, “Dad, I’m going back to school.” I said, “Oh, whhhaa. We just set up the place!” She said, “No, no, no, no! I’ll run my department during the day, I’ll go to school at night,” So she worked a 40 hour week running the deli at the store and she came out with a double degree in finance from NYU. So it says when a woman tells you she wants something take two steps back because you’re going to get run over. [Laughs]
Pat’s my son-in-law inside the office. This is, my son and my son-in-law are here.Pat and Ron basically run this place, and Ron spends half the time at each place. He helps run the stores.
The store was built backwards. The stuff that you could pick up and buy was behind the counter. The stuff we had to wait on you was here and it was on the wall opposite it. So we had to come out to give you bulgur, to give you olives, to give you everything. It was very poorly arranged the way the store was done way back then, and then we changed it in ’85 and then when we opened the third section we changed it again in 2012.
We used to pack our own tahini. We’d buy tahini in 500 pound barrels from A. Sahadi & Company. And we had a contraption that we used that packed it into cans. And we did cans before we did jars…You know, this is Sahadi Brooklyn as opposed to the Sahadi New York.
We started with the fava beans in 1961, even before I came to work full time, but I remember when we started with those, and that’s been a staple with us for 57 years.
We started with numbers after a while because you’d say, “Who’s next?” and 14 people would say, “I’m next.” Nobody would ever say, “She was ahead of me.” Never! So rather than get into one of those situations we put the number machine in. Then they started calling us “the numbers store” just to embarrass the hell out of me. I get embarrassed very easily.
All the olive oil used to be on the back wall. All the regular canned goods were here. All the nuts and fruits and stuff were in the front
We had all the olives in barrels underneath a stainless steel topping, and there were barrels on the floor. There were 5 or 6 or 7 barrels on the floor. So at the time we had about 15 or 16 olives. Today with olives and pickles we have about 39.
We opened the store into that so we now had the double storefront. And that lasted from 1985 until 2012 when we realized we needed more room. We still had the other building on the side. We had rented it out to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. They had a 10 year lease – They stayed 2 years. In 2008/9/10/11 Christine and Audrey set up a holiday store there where all the items that were scattered all over the store were now in a designated area so people coming in for gifts or food baskets or whatever could come in and find them in the store. So that worked out very nicely. It’s just difficult. You can’t logistically get everything done exactly as you want. But bottom line, we did open in 2012 there. So the flow is 187, pass through 189 into 191 and it’s worked out pretty well over the last 6 years.
When you came into the store in the beginning on the right side when you came in there was a section that we had gift items.
I would say, mid to late 50’s. And it didn’t get as much play as the food of course, but it made the store interesting. It was something else to look at that you couldn’t find in your local supermarket. Gift items – brass and clay drums, kitchenware. We had all kinds of aluminum pans and stuff to use in the kitchen. We had a broiler that you put on the stove and it had a little space for water so when the fat dripped from the meat it would go into the water and be extinguished. It was way ahead of its time. It wasn’t as sophisticated as what they make today, but I see the new things out and I say, “We did that first!”
We had a metal spinner. He used to make all these things for us. So yeah, we had some very interesting times getting to where we are.
In the late 60’s my late brother Ritchie got involved with a couple of specialty food people. Specialty food was not a real pattern yet. And he’d get the guy, and they’d come and they’d sit in the back room, and they’d both be smoking cigarettes, and they would make up orders and some new items would come in that we had never seen before.
Non-Arabic cuisine. This is when we sort of – We integrated specialty foods, which is foods from all over the world, with Arabic foods and we were blessed that the synergy worked. It was a perfect marriage where ethnic customers loved the specialty foods we brought in and the specialty food customers loved the ethnic foods that we had. Many of the specialty food customers had never been in the store because we had the stigma of being an Arabic store, not that it was a terrible thing, but if you’re German you’d say, “What am I going to an Arabic store for?”
Today you all want to see what the other guy has, but way back then you were stuck in your ethnic group there, and people were very, very clannish, so it was nice when we expanded. We expanded our horizons by a great deal, we got people from all over the world shopping now, and they would come in with creative ideas for some of our food, and we’d learn some creative ideas from their food. So I have to say it was probably one of the best things that happened to us because it brought us into the 20thCentury at that time and it gave us a customer base and made things much more interesting. It really truly did.
Favorite term, a guy came in one day, he said, “Oh my God! You’ve yuppified!” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “You’ve yuppified!” [Laughs] Of course I hadn’t heard that term before.
I’ll give you an example – Balsamic vinegar – Nobody ever heard of it. Actually we didn’t start with that till ‘82. But we didn’t sell a full line of canned fish, we didn’t sell a full line of canned olives, we didn’t sell a full line of hot sauces. You didn’t use hot sauce to make kibbe. You didn’t use basmati rice to make something. I’d say the store today is probably 75 specialty and 25 Middle Eastern. Although a lot of specialty fits into the Middle Eastern, but, when we segregate them the Middle Eastern is the smaller part. Yet people come specifically because we have the Middle Eastern and what’s gone completely bonkers is the spice section.
In fact the reason we went to packaged spices, we were a bulk store –We used to sell spices by the ounce, quarter, ½ pound or a pound, and one Thanksgiving, 8, 10 years ago, maybe 2005, 2003, something like that, a lady came in. And she ordered 28 one ounce bags of spices to go with an order that she was buying. I quickly checked and I said, 28 one ounce bags by the time you opened the pack– Ta pa, ta da pa – It took about 45 minutes for the guy to do that. Now the lady bought $100. The spice part of the order was 13 dollars and 75 cents. And the rest of the customers of course are sitting there waiting, and if they’re not waiting they’re walking out because they don’t have to wait for this.
So within two weeks after that I got containers, we got a different scale and we started to package and put the stuff out. And we set out the shelf alphabetical and it made a big difference in the way we sell spices today. And as I say, today’s spice sales are more than we’ve ever had them. Well, people are cooking more. Even though nobody has time, food is important. I always tell people when times get tough you dust off your old cookbooks. You need cumin, you need coriander, you need allspice you need pomegranate molasses. And who has that? Oh, Sahadi has it! So they come and they pick up. Again I feel number one we’re an ingredients store.
Again, we’re responsive to customers. You learn from experience – Listen! – Ahh! Most important part of business. Listen to the customer. You are the boss. I’m the guy that’s giving you the product. If I don’t listen to you I’m doing a disservice to you and if I’m doing a disservice to you, you’re gonna to find somebody else who’ll take care of you.
Let me give you a quick example. For years we only sold salted nuts. So one day I’m in the store This is going back in the ‘70s maybe. Seven people came in asking, “Do you have roasted unsalted cashews?” I said, “No,no,no. We only sell salted cashews. If you need unsalted cashews behind Abraham & Strauss on Livingston Street there’s a health food store there. You could go buy them there.”
After the seventh time I slapped myself in the face. I said, “What’s wrong with you? The same guy that makes your cashews makes unsalted and salted. So next day we had unsalted cashews, unsalted almonds, unsalted whatever. But you know, sometimes you gotta be woken up.
So anyway, those are all experiences that make you better at what you do and I think it’s helped us a lot, just paying attention, but listening. Listen to the customers.
The term specialty food or gourmet grocery to me started with Zabar’s. They sell a lot of food that’s for the Jewish trade, but they sell tons of foods from all over the world and they know how to market it. Saul Zabar was a customer of ours. And he bought olives and dates from us. He’d come to the store and he’s say, “Charlie I want to see the Greek black olives and the kalamata.” We go down to the basement, we’d open a barrel, scoop, take it out.
Saul Zabar never ate the olive. He chewed it, and you need a spittoon. He’s spit it out. That’s the way he did it. “This is very good. How many do you have?” I’d say, “We have about 45 barrels.” “Put ‘em for me.” And he’d do the same with dates. He’d want to try ‘em, and see what they were like.
He comes up to the store and he says, “Where’s your coffee department?” I said, “We don’t do bulk coffee. We only do Turkish coffee, because that’s the trade that we basically had.” But we had already become a specialty food store. “The fastest rising part of the specialty food business is coffee! Give me the phone!” He calls somebody here in Sunset Park, he says, “Sterling, I want you at Sahadi’s tomorrow morning!”
So this guy Sterling Gordon from a coffee house in Brooklyn here – Next morning he comes over on his bicycle from 3rdStreet to our place. He parks outside and locks his bike. He says, ”Saul Zabar sent me over.” and he took his first coffee order from us. He’s still one of our four suppliers, so we still buy from them. You know, you’re never too big or too small to learn from somebody else. And when you’ve got an icon like Zabars who’s telling you what you should have, if you ignore that you’re a fool.
Again, Jews and Arabs don’t get along – You know, this is newspaper talk! This is not reality in life. I tell people, when I grew up I didn’t know the difference between a Jew and a Christian, but the thing is – You’re my friend. The fact that you’re Jewish, oh, you didn’t have Christmas? Okay. Big deal. When we were on vacation and there was no Christian Orthodox church in town, my dad would take us to a synagogue, he would take us to a Catholic church. And I thought it was a very important lesson in life also. We’d try something else just to say we didn’t let the Sabbath go by.
My father was a straight honest man. He worked hard . He had many illnesses. My dad most of my adult life was in and out of hospitals. He must’ve had 4 or 5 major operations while I was growing up. Everybody told me my dad was the life of every party. He drank more than anybody, he smoked more than anybody. I never saw that. My dad never drank, and never smoked as far as I was concerned, cause I didn’t see that.
At my wedding he was all decked out in a tuxedo. And he’s up there greeting everybody, and he must’ve taken 20 extra pills that day. He got up and danced. These are all the things that people had told me about that I never saw. I know then for the next four days he was in bed. He couldn’t get out of bed. His arthritis killed him and he got so stiff sometimes to blink was hard. It just showed you that when he had to do something he was determined to do it and he did it. I think he was just happy to get rid of me so [laughs], he didn’t want to, he wanted to make sure I really got married and he wanted to be there for the wedding!
I was probably 13 when I started working on Saturdays. I’m the oldest of three. My late brother Ritchie passed away in 1981. He didn’t go to school as long as I did so he might have gone to the store a little before me, more full time than I. I finished high school and I did two years of college, but my dad was sicker and sicker and there was too much pressure. It was just easier to go to work and I got 52 years of experience, which no school is going to teach you. So I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but I always pride myself with common sense.
When I started I was the janitor, I was the seller at the counter, I was the displayer. You did what you had to do, otherwise the store wouldn’t have run properly. When I actually came to work full time in 1964 at 20 years old. I got married and I came to the store the same year full time.My dad, his philosophy, “You take care of the customers, I’ll run the business.” Terrible philosophy! But he’d say, “If you’re 20 years old you don’t need this pressure. I’m here anyway. I’ll do that.”
Well three years later he died, God bless his soul. So now you have a kid, who fortunately was very curious and did a lot of eavesdropping. And we had a bookkeeper working for us. Her name was Bridgette Kenya (?).She and my dad worked closely. So I’d say, “Bea, who did we get this from?” Really I was a novice in everything.
My dad by the way had a partner. Nick Sabah was my dad’s partner from 1945 to 1981. And Nick was a very great honest man, but he never ran the business cause my dad was the dominant partner. So if I said, “Nick, where do we get feta cheese from?” He says, “I don’t know.” “Where do we get…?” “I don’t know.”
So now I had to learn, and the bookkeeper would say, “If you call this guy George Athens he negotiates with him. You call this guy, he doesn’t negotiate with him.” So in other words, she gave me a heads up and I can call you, you tell me ten, I can take nine and we can come up with a number. So it was a learning process, not always easy. Mistakes were made. So if I bought 20 extra boxes, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” There’s something that would sell in two months instead of a month. It wasn’t a tragedy. And you learn by trial and error. And I look back now and say that, well, I started 55 years ago. We’re still surviving, and I like to think I had a part in that. I helped both my brothers in many ways, without my wife we would not have a business. She’s the rock that keeps us together. That was the best move I made in my 74 year history is to get married to my favorite wife.
She was with us, except when the kids were growing up. Until my son, got to high school, she started working more full time.
We met in high school. We both went to Fort Hamilton. We were both born in the same year. She was born in June and I was born in February and the cutoff was May. So she graduated ’62, I graduated ’61. We had a mutual friend that was going out with a good friend of mine. And he introduced me to her.We probably started going out in ’60. So we were16 or 17, and it lasted! And we got married November the 8th, 1964, which happened to be my parents anniversary, which we had no idea. First of all November is one of the busiest months of the year, because of Thanksgiving. Why is a grocer getting married in November? Just to show you. We literally grew up together. Everything we learned we learned together as young adults growing up.
We just had our 53rdanniversary, butby far the rock in my life is my wife
I’ve been blessed also with my brother Bob who’s technically been my partner for – let’s see, Bob’s 65 – about 45 years or 43 years. And it was good in some ways, because he was at the warehouse for 30 years. So he ran our warehouse and again, after the warehouse he’d come to the store and do paperwork and stuff. So we worked together but not in the same building at all times. So I oversaw what was going on at the store and he oversaw what went on at the warehouse. If he took a vacation I’d go to the warehouse for two weeks, and if I was away we got it done.
It worked out nicely, because it was important. We both had the same goals. Even my late brother Ritchie, he had some health problems when he was young and he had some other problems. But he was the personality who in the front of the store like I am today. Everybody knew Ritchie, and Bob and Charlie were in the back doing mail orders or doing something else. And when Ritchie died I was sort of pushed to the forefront where I had to come out. Fortunately I was a people person who ended up in a people business. So for me it was the best of both worlds.
I haven’t been involved in the warehouse since my brother left the warehouse and came to the store. That was 7 years ago. So, we have not been involved in this much at all, but Bob was here until one day I kept watching him. Both my son and my son-in-law, they kept piling work on Bob, and he wasn’t getting any younger. I said, “Bob, I think it’s time you come to the store. And this way if you might wanna take time off, you take time off.” Whatever. Okay.
He came to the store he ended up having 3 operations in one year. He was a man who had never been in the hospital. And I said, “If you had stayed here and all that had happened and they had no backup, what would they have done?” I said, “I bless them by taking you away. Because you were able to take care of it here, as opposed to putting them in the lurch. What are they gonna do when there was nobody to replace them?” So they hired a guy to take his place, then they hired an assistant for the guy to take his place and then I think they got an assistant to the assistant! So it took 3 guys to replace one guy. [Laughs]
I never thought of closing the business I absolutely love dealing with customers. I would say most store owners don’t know what the inside of their store looks like. They sit in their office, they play with their computer, and they talk with their secretary. They have no interactivity with their customers. Me, if I could spend the whole day in the store, I’m in perfect harmony. One day I got 40 hugs. I called my wife, I said “Honey, I got 40 hugs today.” She said, “You counted them?” I said, “I counted every one” I said, “Thirty eight women and two guys.” I said, “I even liked the ratio!” [Laughs]
MDN: And because of your love of people in 2011 you were honored as ambassador of Atlantic Avenue by the Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation. And that’s a very good title for you Charlie – Ambassador of Atlantic Avenue.
CS: You know…I felt very good about that because most of my life has been devoted to Sahadi’s, but Sahadi’s as part of Atlantic Avenue. We never do anything that’s only for us, we try to do things that are good for the street, cause if the street does better we will do better. And I know that! A lot of people are limited. They say, “Oh. They did an article on Oriental last week. Why didn’t they do it on you?” I said, “An article for Oriental is an article for me! And an article for me is an article for Oriental.” We are not islands by themselves. If people come to the street they’re gonna see one store that they came for and they’ll look, “Oh! There’s a couple more. Let’s go see what they have.” You gotta be open-minded.
First of all it’s part of the makeup of the street. I consider them friends. I can go into their store anytime they’ll never tell me “Charlie you shouldn’t come in here.” They can come to my store anytime. I have that same rapport with everybody on the street. I have nothing to hide and neither do they. I don’t care if they sell pistachios 10 cents less or 10 cents more than me. That’s not my aim in life to go and check that out. If I’m out of something and I know Oriental has that I’ll say, “Please go across the street. Oriental has that. I saw it there yesterday.” That’s the way you should do business. And if you lose that customer then they weren’t really your customer. Let them come to you. Build confidence in them. One day they’ll say, “You know the other guy was good, but you’re better.” Okay. But that’s not because you’re pulling teeth. You’re trying to do the right thing. You’re a friend first, you’re a customer second. You hate losing your friends so you go out of your way to make sure your friends are well taken care of in the store. It’s my Charlie Sahadi philosophy. That doesn’t mean it works in every business, but for me this is one of the things that I feel has helped us stay in business. This is our 70thyear on Atlantic Avenue, and I’m very proud of that.
Most of the stores on the street were mom and poppa stores. There were no big stores on Atlantic Avenue until 10 years ago. And maybe McDonald’s was the first of the outsiders. But most of them – I mean you had the Kirches (?) , you had the, what’s his name, Mike Karnib (?) was across the street. There was little butcher shops, little grocery stores. And they were Arabic American, they were American grocery with some Arabic flavor to them.
When we got to the street there was a store on the next block called Oriental Mercantile that was between Clinton and Henry on my side of the street. It was owned by George Ayoub. And I love the store because it was square! It wasn’t long and thin. It was a square store and the stores in the back was different. So…I just loved the look of his store. He was a good guy he sold stuff like us. He lived in Bay Ridge like us. And he and his brother Albert, was called Abdou – George owned the store, Abdou worked for his brother, and then they had a fight, and Abdou left, and he took on a guy named George, well, we called him George the Greek, and they opened Oriental Pastry.
Oriental Pastry was opened by George the Greek and Abdou Ayoub. And Abdou Ayoub is one of these generous Syrians. You come in, “Try one of these! Have one of these! They gave away lots of product, but I don’t know if they ever made any money!
Anyway, bottom line is the Moustapha family came in years later – Charlie and his three sons – And they bought the business from them and they made a nice success out of it themselves.
Oriental Mercantile closed years later. George retired and they closed. Then we had the Alwan Brothers. We had Alwan on top of the Near East Bakery. Fouad Alwan – made the best pastry. Mahmoud Alwan was in our store now – 189. He made Syrian ice cream and pastry. I always considered his ice cream the better one and the other guy’s pastry the better one. Two brothers didn’t talk to each other, which, what else is new in this world?
It was an interesting thing, because it was all mamma and poppa stores. The blue laws were in effect so you couldn’t open on Sunday, till George Malko, who used to be across the street from us. Well, he was next door to us for about ten years I think. And he and my dad never spoke. I don’t know what the story was, so we never spoke either. And then he moved across the street next door to where Regina Nut was. And he knocked the building down and he built a one story building there. It was called Allanphone. It was an Arabic record store.. And then 15 years ago, 20 years ago there was a fire in the store. And I was afraid of what the firemen were gonna do inside the store.
So myself and George Yeakel, he and I went into the store and we sat there till George Malko came. And we told him we couldn’t leave the store alone because they had to rip the gate down, the store was gonna be left wide open. We sat there for about an hour and a half before they found George Malko and he came to the store. And we shook hands and that’s the first time I ever spoke with him ever! And George Yeakel, while we’re there he said, “I’m hungry!” So he took some pumpkin seeds. So when George came I said, “I want you to know, this visit cost you about a pound of pumpkin seeds!” [Laughs] “George couldn’t wait till we left!” So… [Laughs]
I think 178 was Regina, and I think 180, that’s where Barney’s is. The right side of the store is where George Malko was.
There was a guy across the street that sold Arabic rugs, and was a Palestinian man. I forgot his name. He was there for many years. He sold jewelry also.
On the corner where the cleaner is now that was Tripoli Restaurant. It used to be an Arabic restaurant, then they had a fire – a suspicious fire – and they ended up moving. They moved into the building on the corner where they are now, which was owned by Ralph Attara, who owned Clinton House Furniture. So he sold them that building and he opened his bigger building where Urban Outfitters was. That building was owned by the Attara family.So they sold the building, and now of course if you want to eat in Tripoli Restaurant you gotta eat in the basement and a lot of people don’t want to eat in the basement. You know, they own a lot of property in the downtown area and they’re much more interested in there being landlords than they are into running a restaurant. So I think maybe one of the two brothers died. There was two brothers that did this and Mohammad I think spends a lot of time in Lebanon. So I think the situation there changed.
And, we don’t really have a Middle Eastern restaurant downtown anymore. Technically we have the new guy on the next block – Sultan something, I think. Tripoli on the corner, about 6, 7 doors, there’s one there, and then you have Yemen Café.
I know everybody comes over and says they go there.If you’re a meat lover evidently meat is their big thing, and they evidently do a nice job.
But usually when I leave work after I’ve been on this street for 14 hours I want to eat somewhere else. I wanna go to 3rd Avenue, I want to go to 5thAvenue or somewhere and eat away from where I work. Cause near where I work seven people are gonna stop me to talk to me, and you feel like you never left work. You’re still on duty and I didn’t want to be on duty 24/7.
They were long hours. You know, I would get there about 7:30 and I’d get home about 9 o’clock at night. They called it labor of love, because I enjoyed what I did. I spent most of my day schmoozing and taking care of customers. It made a lot of people very happy. As my wife would say, “Yeah. Then at 7 o’clock you’d have to go up to the office and do two hours of paperwork that you didn’t do during the day, cause you were too busy schmoozing,” but I felt that was an important part of my way of running a business.
People enjoy talking with me. As I say most bosses are not in their store so you can’t always get the feel for a store if you can’t talk to the boss and see what his or her opinion on different things are. I was always accessible.
People will say, “Can I make an appointment to have a meeting with you?” I’d say, “I’m here anyway.”
Saturday was by far the busiest day of the week. People weren’t working, and kids were off from school so the parents didn’t have to stay home with their kids per se. At one point we used to call it “Greek – Egyptian Day” that we had so many Greeks and Egyptians shopping, more than our own Middle Eastern people. It was just an interesting time.
You know things change. Several more Greek stores opened. They like to shop with their own if they can, and we were a convenient alternative until some stores opened that they could go to. But as long as those stores were competitive they would go there.
We call 5thAvenue Mecca now. Fifth Avenue from 69thStreet to 86thStreet. Three or four stores on every block have Arabic writing on them, Most of the grocers there are Halal. Most of them have meat besides the groceries. They have many more stores than we have.
You almost feel like you’re in the Middle East, and if you didn’t blink three times and see a Carvel or something next to it you’d say, “Oh wait. I’m back in America again.” I mean it’s just very strong ethnic and they evidently support each other very well and I’m glad to see that.
They buy from us wholesale, so what we’ve lost a little in retail we’ve gained in the wholesale. They buy from us cause we are the importers of a lot of the products. They’re not really competing with us. We’re six miles apart. They have their own people to compete with that are right next door to them.
Two women owned this company. We like dealing with women companies too. They got to the point, “We’re not selling enough.” they said. Okay. We had been increasing at a nice pace, but they wanted to go even faster. So they said, “Well we got this other guy who wants to take the stuff.” So my son-in-law said, “You want it. Fine.” Six months later they came back, “I’m sorry. We made a mistake. We want to come back.” We said, “I’m sorry. You left us. We found somebody else. We’re not going there anymore.”
You know, we worked with them. We brought them in. They came to the food show. We let them set up next to us. They didn’t have to pay for their space and all. But you know, you try to help as much as you can, but if you’re not getting reciprocal help, so. The point is, he told them at the beginning, “You’re gonna be sorry, because you know, people promise you the world…”
You know. We were the importers of grape leaves, the California grape leaves – Orlando brand – There was 4 distributors in the country. Now we’re the smallest of the 4 distributors, but we sold more Orlando than any of them. And people would go to the manufacturer, a friend of ours, Alan Andrews and say, “Oh! Sahadi sells 15,18 containers. We’ll sell 25.” And Al said, “I have 15, or 20 in the bag now. Why would I take a chance on your doing 25? How do I know you’re gonna do 25?.” He said, “I know. In 10 days after they get the stuff I get my check. He said, “Why would I jeopardize my sales because you make a promise that you may not be able to keep?”
Yeah. So we’ve been bustling (?). Most of our suppliers are loyal to us. If they have a problem we discuss it and if it’s beneficial for them to go somewhere else they do and we go on to the next adventure.
We have a full line of Middle Eastern products.The tahini we have, the hummous we have, the Sahadi canned goods we have, plus a complete line of products. I mean we bring in, from Lebanon we probably bring in, probably 20 containers a year, or 25 containers, 40 foot containers of assorted merchandise, and that’s what we distribute. I mean the store takes what we need but they distribute to stores in approximately 36 states. I mean when it comes to going to the west coast from New York the inland freight is too expensive, so there are importers like us on the west coast.
So, yeah we bought this building here about 17 years ago. We have the roasting machine here. All the seeds that we sell we roast here, all the pistachios we sell we roast here and they roast the hazelnuts. We don’t roast cashews because the type roaster we have, it’s a vibrator and cashews are very breakable and they end up coming up cashew pieces, so we have that done outside, oil roasted somewhere else. The stuff we do here is dry roasted.
In 1990 we bought Regina nut products, which was some friends of ours that were suppliers, and they decided to retire and they put the business up for sale and they got creative financing. Nobody had any money to buy it, so they sent out a letter. They said, “We’re going to liquidate.” So I called them up, I said, “You can’t liquidate. You’re one of our bigger suppliers.” So we negotiated and we bought the business in 1990. And we ran it as two separate businesses for 9, 10 years. We’re doing very nicely here.
When the war was taking place in Lebanon between ’75 and ’90 we had some difficulty getting product in until they finally realized that without commerce they didn’t have the money to fight the war. So if they didn’t sell they didn’t get paid, if they didn’t get paid, how’re you gonna fight when you have no bullets, no guns, no anything else. So for a while we were bringing from Latakia, Syria. And then Lebanon opened up again so we went back to our Lebanese sources.
Right now, several products we bring are from Syria now. You can’t bring from Syria now. They’re too busy trying to stay alive! And yet without commerce you have no money to live. It’s atrocious what’s happening in Syria right now.
MDN: Charlie were there ever any business organizations in the area started by Syrians and Lebanese?
We belong to the Atlantic Avenue Merchants Association. We belong to the local development corporation, meaning we support them in different ways when they have something going on.We had the Atlantic Antic. You’d think as a group we could work together. It was always a challenge…
The Atlantic Avenue Committee came over one day and they said, “You’re having a street fair in September.” I said, “Excuse me?” We’re very difficult people to work with. “Don’t come and tell me what we’re having! Come and ask me what do you think of this!”
Anyway, so he came and we went up to the SYMA Club, Syrian Young Men’s Association, next door to us on the second floor, and we sat up in the club for an hour and we’re talking and they have all these plans made up without us. We’re just insignificant people here.
This was in‘72. So we all sat there after he left and said, “Did you hear what he said? Arrogant people. We’re not gonna accept this crap.”
A month later a different group from the same people came back and they started, they want to talk about it. “What do you think about an antic? What do you think about this? What do you think…?”
Now you’re including us in the conversation! So, we got involved and we ended up, a bunch of us on Atlantic Avenue, and it started as a buzz and it became something. And the first Antic was on a Saturday. And I’m gonna take a guess – We drew 50,000 people. And people said, “Ah! My God! My God!”
So they’re planning the next Antic now, usually the last Sunday in September and they’re discussing the date for the next Antic. So the arrogant members of the Middle East – Four of us went, and they’re just about to vote on the date, and we said, “Why isn’t this on a Sunday?” Saturday is a shopping day. Sunday is a family day. We want this to be a family affair. And they thought about it and they thought about it. “Good idea!” “Okay.”
This was in October, November, December of ’73 now, cause the first Antic had finished. For the next 9 months we’re sitting, “What if this doesn’t work? We had 50,000 people there! They’re gonna blackball us! Well we drew about 400,000, maybe more, maybe close to 800,000. We didn’t know what to do with the people, there were so many people. And it was just nice to see that they gave us a chance to put our input in there and that the input worked.
Now, they had the parade. It was very nice when it started. The parade ended up going, but we wanted to have a band set up on our street. So Key Food had the widest space there and they weren’t using the front so we put a stage in front of them. And we got Eddie Koshak to be our band leader. He was an entertainer all his life. So now we’ve got to come up with 1500 dollars or something to pay for this band. We had to get the stage. You had to get the Wonder wagon from the city, and you had to get a sound system. And it was probably 2000 dollars.
So, the beggars, myself, Stan Rashid, Eddie Koshak, we go knock on doors, “Oh here’s 50 dollars, here’s 25 dollars, here’s 100 rah ra.” Alright, we collect whatever we can. We come back we have 800, 900 dollars. So we subsidized it. We did it for about 5 years. And finally the local development corporation decided, “You know, we want to sponsor the band.” I said, “Oh! Now we’re talkin’!” So they took it over. But it’s worked out very nicely. But this is the way it started with us going around like beggars knocking on doors and seeing what we could collect from one to the other in order to make this work.
And Eddie Koshak performed, out of the 43 Antics, I’m gonna say he performed in 39 of them. It was two years he was with Anthony Quinn, with Zorba the Greek, and he was travelling the country with Anthony Quinn. But the other ones he was here. So I was so happy. We got him there last year even at 96, he got up and did his schpeil and I felt good about it.
Stanley and his brother Raymond Rashid, when we used to have that pornographic movie on Court Street, on weekends they’d run Arabic movies. They would sell tickets ahead, and you’d go and see the Arabic movies there.
Yeah they were very good at that. They had rights to certain films and they had rights to certain labels for records, and – You know what a record is, yes ? [Laughs] – Records and videos.
I’ll tell you my favorite story. After 911, when 911 happened my wife called from the warehouse. She said, “An airplane just hit the World Trade Center. Something’s going on.” Okay so we put on the radio, TV, whatever we had. And we’re watching this. I finally told everybody, “We’re going home. Everybody has to go home with somebody they love, sit at home and watch television and see what’s going on. This is not an atmosphere for working.” So we closed and we went home.
The next morning I came down. And I’ve never been uncomfortable in my neighborhood at all. There were 7, 8 people lurking in front of the store. I never saw that before I came down. “Oh Charlie Sahadi, how you doing? We came to give you a hug. We wanted you to know that we love you and your store for all these years, and this is not going to influence in any way shape or form what happened today.”
The next day I had a meeting at Brooklyn Borough Hall, or two days later. I’m walking up on Court Street, a guy taps me on the shoulder, he says, “Charlie, can I give you a hug?” I never met this guy. I don’t know who it is! “Can I give you a hug?”
Ah! Then a group from the school for special kids on Court Street, Mary McDowell. About 60 kids and about 3 or 4 teachers and some parents walk up to Sahadi’s singing love and peace songs. And every one of them made me a note or a card thanking me for being their neighbor. I was in tears. Absolute…I’ve never been so emotional on my street in all the years I’m there.
Now two years later, Marty Markowitz was running for Borough President maybe for the second time. And they went to different people to interview them to see, what people say about Brooklyn. I was blessed to be one of those, and I told the story about these kids coming in. I got calls from all over. They couldn’t believe what a wonderful story it was, how people come together and sort of protect you and let you know that you belong. I mean we weren’t Johnny come latelys. We were here 45 years already. But just to show that after a horrific thing like this happens people have compassion. It’s such a wonderful, wonderful feeling. I can’t tell you how good I felt just being in that situation. It was probably, really, the most emotional time of my life. I’m tearing up now thinking about it.
We all came out of a mother. I don’t understand the big distinction between, this is better and this is better. There’s no better or worse. Some people are tall and some people are short. What has that got to do with anything? You know, people are looking for an argument, and I look to get away from an argument. And I really feel that it’s important to embrace peace. Embrace peace! Everybody’s an equal. Give them a hug.
But anyway I will say I’ve never really received any negative things.
You know the worst four-letter word in the English language? “Hate.” With all the esses and effs and everything else you can think of? Hate is the worst four-letter word. To really hate somebody? No. I dislike alot of people. I don’t hate anybody. I didn’t hate Bin Laden. And that’s a tough thing to say, but I didn’t hate him, because somewhere there was a human, something in him was that way. I mean that’s the way it is.
It was either the late ‘60s, early ‘70’s I would think. The city, not only did they want to widen the street, they wanted to make it into a thoroughfare.Joe Shutta (?), our neighbor across the street, was very involved in that. Anyway, he fought for the rights to not do that and I can say now 50 years later –I was always thankful to Joe for doing that. You don’t know who’s gonna stand up for your rights. And now the mayor wants to put a trolley from Brooklyn to Queens! And where’s the trolley gonna go? Down Atlantic Avenue! So now we’re going to have a trolley lane, a car lane, and we’ll have a bus lane. Where is the parking lane? Where do the customers go? I said, “Don’t you guys think things out?”
Another example – The city came to do a water main, in the ‘70’s I think. And I go to a meeting at Brooklyn Borough Hall. And they have their big table there and they have all the blueprints for the street. So the guy said, “You know, we’re gonna start this work in 2 weeks. Any comments?” And I said, “Yeah. What about the vaults?” And he looks at me and he says, “What vaults?” I said, “The vaults. You’ve been charging us 500 dollars a year for it because they’re technically on our property.” I said, “Now the last 2 years you didn’t charge us for it. Does that mean they disappeared?” I said, “If you take that wall down you’re gonna be in my basement! There is a vault under the sidewalk that goes out right to the curb – right under the fire hydrant, right under the meter.” So the guy said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “Come with me.”
So I got one of the guys from DDC, Department of Design and Construction. I took him for a walk. I said, “None of my neighbors are gonna let him in the building unless I’m with him” So we go down to my basement first. We have a nice sized vault. I mean, maybe it was a wine room where you stored your wine. I don’t know. Our building was probably built in 1890, so God knows. I mean it’s 125 years old now. I took him to each of the stores on my side of the street. Four out of six of them had vaults. And he looked at me and he said, “Oh shit!” I said, “Ah! We made progress!” My favorite two words! When somebody’s mind wakes up that’s the first two words that comes out of their mouths! [Laughs]
So they had to address that now. Now if they’re going to open the wall they have to cover you somehow inside, cause that might be open for 4, 5, 6, 10 days. Rodents can get in, people can get in, two legged, four legged. Come on guys! You’ve got to protect us! But there’s no vaults!…For 20 years we’re paying 500 dollars a year for the vault!
I loved the Alwan stores because they were both my friends. I could go in and I’d get fed very nicely! I was a spoiled kid. Mahmoud would be making Harrebi, and I’d be eating the dough as he was making it. He says, “The raw dough is not healthy for you!” I’m gonna eat it anyway. I don’t care!
We had a lot of fun there. When the Rashids were there – Albert Rashid, the father, was a very nice guy and Stan and I got along very well. I happened to like A Cook’s Companion. She was a wonderful person. Jennifer was there on our street, I think for 20 years. She was very good. She left for family reasons. She’s protected the building more than any tenant I have ever seen. Cost them a lot of money to fix it, but the value has gone up tremendously.
But now I worry what’s gonna come. I like the makeup of the street the way it is. I don’t like change. When the butcher next door to us opened everybody said, “Oh my God! Whose gonna buy 50 dollar meat?” Well this is 5 years later, he’s still selling 50 dollar meat so he must’ve found an audience. And he’s doing well. So I’m happy that people find their niche because if he does well the overrun will come to us and vice versa. I mean he’s fortunate to be next to a store that’s busy so a lot of people see him. And he’s got Damascus on the other side which is another big draw.
Damascus bakery was owned by the Halaby family from 1936. Somewhere in the maybe the ‘80’s or ‘70’s – Tony Mahfoud (?) became partner with Henry Halaby. And they ran Damascus Bakery. And later down the line they split. The Mahfoud’s got the bakery, which is on Gold Street. The Halaby’s got the store on Atlantic Avenue and that’s how it split. See we don’t have Damascus Bakery on the street, we have Damascus Bread & Pastry. So it’s not the same store.
Damascus, when Junior and Henry decided they didn’t want to keep running the bakery, they rented the store out to their two managers who are running the store. And immediately they made it into a grocery store. Okay, that’s fine. They wanted to be our competitors.
I thought they should have expanded in their bakery line, made it a much more interesting store. Let’s see, they opened in ’36. So they’re about 84 years on the street. They never changed anything. They modernized one time, but they really never added new products. These new guy came in, Tony and Gus, they spent more money in one week than the other guys spent in 20 years. They renovated the whole place, they put refrigerators, they have plenty of stuff we sell out there now, and they’re doing very nicely! And I think they’re gonna get their lease renewed by the brothers because the brothers, if they come back to take over the store, they’ll have to work, They don’t want to work, They can get paid for not working!
MDN: Is the bakery still on Gold Street?
CS: Yes. And they also opened in New Jersey, I think in Newark. They built a bigger plant there. I think one day they’re just going to make co-ops and condos where they are. That’s what’s going on in DUMBO. But right now they’re still producing in both places as far as I know. I see the brothers from time to time– The Mahfoud brothers – and they update me on what’s going on over there. I’m not a threat as a competitor, so they can tell me what’s going on. You know, the father was very secretive. Nobody was allowed in the plant to see what they were doing. But he did let me in. He took me on the tour himself. I had not yet seen the full bakery operation before, so it was a learning experience for me also.
Both my kids and my son-in-law they’re all finance majors. Ron I thought would like to work on Wall Street. So I said, “Ron get a job in Wall Street. You’ll get nicely dressed, you’ll meet all these nice young ladies. Bah, bah bah…” Okay. He worked on Wall Street for six months or four months. He said, “I want to stay at the store.” So fortunately his wife now was a teller at Citibank when he met her. So it was good that he came back, cause his wife is a doll and she’s my favorite daughter-in-law. She says, “But I’m your only daughter-in-law!” [Laughs] I said, “To tell you the truth if I had another one you’d still be my favorite!”
He finished college first, he took a year off, maybe five years after high school. He’d come down on a Saturday and help out, or in the summer he’d come down part time in the summer. Well Christine fully started in 1985. Christine has over 30 years experience, and Ronny probably has 20 now.
You know, I wanted both of them to try something outside, so they wouldn’t feel that “Oh my God. This is what I have to do.” This is a business you have to have a passion for. I had a passion for it. I still have a passion. That’s why I go in on Tuesdays. I love the people that come in. I had a connection with them. They’re less connected with the actual customer than I was. But each person is different. It worked for me. I hope for their sake that they have the same kind of thing. I was just the opposite with them that my dad was with me. I wanted them to be hands on with everything. I wanted them to see every angle of the business while they were getting into it so that they wouldn’t say, “Oh my God! Why didn’t you tell me?”
I think it’s a wonderful thing. They want to do something on their own. My daughter and my son, and my son-in-law – This is a project for the three of them now. It’s right here in Industry City. It’s not far away. They rented it without seeing [it]. They know the dimensions. They know where it’s gonna be, and they have some creative ideas. They want to do different things. There’s gonna be a place to eat, outside seating and some inside, not designated to us but for the building. There’s different kinds of restaurants and foods there. There’ll be an open kitchen, you’ll be able to see some stuff. I really can’t give you much details cause I don’t have them. I want this to be theirs. If they have any questions they know I’m there for them. But I think it’s good that they get their own fresh start and I think they’ll feel good about themselves that they didn’t just continue something, they expanded it.
Well even the expansion of the store, the third store, that was Christine. She arranged the architect, she arranged the contractors. The other one before that I did, but the third one she did.
I tell you I was the boss for 50 years. I mean the writing’s on the wall. This way they’re putting their effort into something that’s theirs with the full support of their mother and father, and their uncle. We’re both out now. I go in Tuesday, he goes in Wednesday now, just to keep the fingers in the pot.
We have over 2000 items. See, like in the new place they’re gonna sell most of the stuff they can import directly. And they’re trying to bring in other, like olive oil. They’re bringing some high end olive oil from Lebanon. We have it at the store but the Millenials are different than the rest of us and they’re trying to appeal to them. They’re realizing that’s the future of their business, so they have to reach out to them and do what they can to make it work.
So I’m glad that a younger group is working on that. Even for them social media is late in their life but still better now then waiting to get to my age when you have no interest in it anymore.
Christine’s oldest son Michael, he shows interest in business, but his mother said, “Not for at least 5 years after you get out of school.” I don’t know if she wants him to go through what I went through with my kids, but each person has their own tolerance level, and they have their own reason for doing what they do.
Busiest time for the year is September to January. Second busiest time is around the Easter, Passover holidays. The summer would be our actually slowest season. If you want to count your big business where people buy bigger quantities and entertain more it’s more done in the cooler weather than the warmer weather. But thank God business is pretty steady year round.
I should have alot more stories. Usually if I interview 3 times in a week I have different stories for each person! [Laugh] We have a group that comes in with a bus to the store all the time. He comes in with about 40 people on the bus. And he comes in, he says, “Charlie your store’s a little busy today. You want to talk to them on the bus?” So I walk out to the bus and he gives me the microphone. I give them a 10 minute schpiel on what’s going on, and then I say, “By the way, we have a hell of a halvah inside.” And they come in to the halvah counter. There’s 25 of them waiting on line to get halvah while they’re there, and they pick up other stuff when they’re there.
But we have fun, You know, you get exposure. We have about four guys that do tours at the store on a semi-regular basis. One of the women that comes to us is Addie Tomei. That’s Marisa Tomei’s mother. She takes people on food tours. We’ve enjoyed having her. Her uncle and aunt shop with us also so we know Marisa through them but we don’t know Marisa directly.
We do have a website now. Okay I’ll go back now. 1951 we started a mail order business on Atlantic Avenue called “The Silent Salesman.”
So The Silent Salesman was our catalog from 1951 to 1976. Audrey and I, when we came into work, we expanded the little book into a bigger book, thought it would be easier to read in a bigger copy and it was about the same postage, so we did that.
And the problem was we were trying to run a retail store and in the back of the store trying to do the orders. Well of course you’re busy and there’s a real customer outside with cash in their hand you’re gonna take care of them first. We were always behind, sometimes two, sometimes three weeks behind. Sometimes we’d go down on Sunday for four or five hours myself and two others and we’d do a bunch of orders. Many times we’d stay till 9 or 10 at night. It got to be ridiculous. So in 1976, the Easter catalog, I sent out a thing saying, “This is the last catalog we’re going to do. Thank you for all your patronage over the years, but we are more focused on wholesale now rather than retail. This way we’ll get product into your market possibly and you can go shop at a store near you.” We thought it was the normal way to do business.
I got some of the nastiest letters in the world, “You got our money, now you don’t need us anymore!” And I take everything to heart and I was so upset. I wanted to talk to each of these people personally and let them know that’s not the truth. But you know, you learned to live with it, and then after six months or four months it died down and then we talked about it several times in between. “No. No. No. No.” And then business was a little bit off and they wanted to increase it some way. So they went back into it.
They very nicely run the website and got it set up. Christine makes a recipe for the kitchen today before it’s in the deli it’s on social media. Everybody on our list knows about it before the actual piece comes out in the store. If you’re not into social media today you can’t run a business anymore! I mean I understand that!
My dad and my uncles lived in Bayonne years ago. Now I live three miles from here. We’ve been Saint Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church two blocks from my house since it opened in 1951. I’ve been in Bay Ridge all my life, except for six years from 1970 to ’76. We bought a house in Staten Island because truly we couldn’t afford a house in Bay Ridge in’76. And we moved back into this house that we’re in now 42 years ago. And we’re very happy that we did that. When we left our church was here, our families were here, our business was here, our doctors were here. Everything we did was in Brooklyn, And because of that it behooved us to come back to Brooklyn, and I’m very happy we’re here.
One last story! I got another story for you. I’m gonna say it was ’64 or ’65. A buddy of mine and I were at the store doing mail orders on Sunday because we were way behind. And I was doing the Christmas window. It must have been November. And a police officer knocks on the window. I mean, the gates were down and closed, so nobody knows we’re inside, but he saw us inside. I opened the gates. “Can I help you?” He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m doing the windows and doing some orders.” He said, “You know you’re not allowed in your store on Sunday.” Again, the blue laws, where, in effect you couldn’t sell on Sunday. I said, “We’re not selling anything. We’re inside.” He said, “Well, not me. I’m not gonna bother you, but if my sergeant or my lieutenant passes you later and sees you he’s gonna give you a violation and you’ll have to go to court to pay it.” That’s 100 dollars or something.
So honestly, I took it as a threat. Maybe I’m a nut. I said, “He’s gonna go and give me a ticket for 100 dollars now?” So I talk to my buddy and said, “Do you want to open?” So we opened. We opened on a Sunday. [Slaps himself] Shame on me.
The hardest thing I had to do that day – My dad was in Long Island College Hospital, in the hospital. When the day was over I had to go over and tell him what I did, cause this was a no no. And when he heard the story he says, “Good for you!” [laughs] Uhh! I felt so much better! I felt so much better!
They never came back. Nothing happened and we did a good day’s business. The good thing about it, usually you do a good day and you say, “Oh my God! I should do this every Sunday, cause look what we could do!” No. Just like the Atlantic Antic. We do open that one Sunday a year now, but that doesn’t convince me that the other 51 Sundays we should open. I think family days are important.
I give you another example. If you have a plumbing problem that has to be fixed with big pipes or something, you can arrange for the plumber on Sunday for extra, and not bother your customers. If you have to paint, like they painted a few months ago, you can paint on one Sunday and the next Sunday and finish the job. You almost need the downtime so you can get things done!
It usually breaks on the busiest day! What goes down is the computer. When the computer goes down you got a line of 14 people. “Sorry we can’t take your credit card.” What do you mean you can’t take credit cards?!” I said, “We ran this business (I’ll say, 70) for 50 years only with cash and checks, now all of a sudden without a credit card we’re nobodies?”
Because most people don’t carry checks anymore – Well, some people still carry cash thank God, but it’s a dying breed. I have to tell you. I’m like a dinosaur. I still pay cash when I buy stuff, but you come in to buy a cup of coffee for 2.50, you want to charge it. Oh God!
You used to put a sign up, “10 dollar minimum.” It’s technically against the law –It’s against the credit card company. They want you to charge everything cause they get 3% of everything you charge.
“Who do you think pays these charges? You didn’t pay me any extra, so I’m paying the extra 3%, so your 60 dollar sale cost me $1.80 out of my pocket, and if you buy $1.50 cup of coffee. So your $1.50 cup of coffee should be $1.75 or $2 to make up for all these people that want to pay a small credit card thing.
People said, “You missed your bar years!” Well, I was never a bar person, so. To this day I’ve never had a beer. I shouldn’t say that. We were in Germany. We walked into a beer garden to taste a beer, we both took one sip and we said, “Now we know why we don’t drink beer.”
You want more strange? I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life. I can’t even say I tried it. My parents had a coffee pot on from 7 in the morning till 11 at night, 7 days a week. I never even tasted it, so I can’t say I don’t like it.
We were on a river cruise to Paris 10 years ago. It was Easter Sunday that year. So the lady said, “There’s a light lunch inside, and why don’t you go take a walk or something and come back to this?” And you look out the window. The Eiffel Tower is right there, three quarters of a mile up the road.It was a nice day. It was a little damp and the ground was a little wet. So we went to the Eiffel Tower. Across the street there was an Easter market. We even bought some stuff from the Easter market. Looked at the clock, it’s 5 o’clock. We better start going back to the boat.
I’m walking back to the boat, I slipped on the cobblestone, fractured two bones in my pelvis. I was worthless! Absolutely worthless. I’m laying on the floor there and somebody stopped to help me get up, and a guy pulls over on a 40 mile an hour highway. He gets out of the car and he says, “Can I help you?” It would just show you your perception of people can be so far wrong. I said, “No the boat is right there.” It was probably 4 blocks away. I said, “We’ll get there. Thank you.” It was the hardest 4 blocks I ever had to walk! I cursed myself for not taking that ride. That man was being so nice to me.
Anyway, we were on the boat 2 days. They had a wheelchair on the boat, so I was able to get around. It’s a barge, it’s 150 people on it. And the lunchroom is downstairs. So 4 guys from the restaurant came, brought me down, brought me back up again, bent over backwards. The next day they were doing a walking tour. Of course I’m not gonna walk, so I told her, “You go walk. They’ll put me on the deck. By the time you come back I’ll have 5 people around me talking with me.” She came back I had 6 people around me talking with me. She said, “You could talk to the wall!” I said, “Yes I could!”
There’s been so many interesting things that have happened to me in my life. I’m blessed to be a people person in a people business. I always felt that way and this type of business was made for me.
END OF INTERVIEW