In a Chinese Community, a Middle Eastern Grocer Thrives
By Jiayan Huang
With the recent economic slowdown and the turmoil on Wall Street, businesses across the country are feeling the pinch. Some of the nation’s largest retail stores and chains have been knocked from the top or forced to restructure, yet some mom-and-pop stores seem to be holding on.
The Shahin Supermarket and Deli Corporation, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, has been in business for 17 years and continues to thrive. Situated between a Chinese bakery and an Asian restaurant, Shahin is a small, 900-square-foot, privately owned business.
Fresh fruits in big, brown boxes sit at the entrance. Inside the store, potatoes, rolls and cereal boxes sit across from candies, gum, chocolates and the meat counter. In the four aisles are neatly stacked cans of food and condiments. Behind the counter, the manager, Emad Rahab, keeps products ranging from body wash to hardware. At first glance, this store appears to be a typical deli, but there is something unique about this store.
Shahin is one of only four non-Asian businesses within 10 blocks; the rest are owned by Asian families. Rahab himself is from the Middle East; he declined to be more specific than that. Despite the ethnic difference, Rahab has been able to secure a group of loyal customers.
“Even when I first opened this store, I took home money the first week,” he says.
It is apparent that the basic laws of supply and demand are in play. In this vibrant Chinese community, the most common businesses are bakeries and restaurants, ranging from Malaysian to Vietnamese to cafes. Within the 10-block area are nine different bakeries and almost four times as many other Asian establishments.
Businesses are also constantly changing – renovating, relocating or closing down completely.
“There used to be a Chinese grocery store right next to me and it didn’t last,” says Rahab. “In fact, a lot of businesses didn’t last. Of the 17 years, I only know one other store on this block that has been in operation longer than me.”
Rahab attributes his longevity to luck, but there are clearly other contributing factors.
“I have been coming here for the last nine years. He knows my parents, my grandparents, so we developed a relationship,” said Andy Lam, one of Shahin’s faithful customers. “And he makes the best cold-cut sandwiches! My favorite is spicy turkey with American cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise and it’s only $4! Compare to the other local stores that cost around $4.50 to $5 and would not get the same amount of ham or turkey.”
Before moving to Brooklyn, Rahab helped run a business in Israel and learned how to appeal to customers. He gives Shahin a cozy atmosphere by hanging family photos, sheltering a stray cat and allowing people to post advertisements. He provides excellent service and has a friendly nature, always ready to start a conversation with a joke. People from the neighborhood often go into his store just to talk.
“I would stay in the store for like 30 minutes. It’s always the neighborhood faces, like an old lady that lives on 52nd and Fort Hamilton Avenue,” says Lam. “There’s an alcoholic that is always in the store around 8-10:30 p.m. before closing. He would just stay there to hang out and drink.”
Aware that his customers are affected by the recession, Rahab frequently allows them to buy on credit, giving them an additional week or two to pay. He also accepts food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of government aid as payment. He trained his two employees, who are also non-Asian, to respect the customers and to remember that “customers are always right.”
Still, Shahin is not immune to the stings of the economy. With the constant increase of rent and utility expenses, and employees’ demand for higher pay, Rahab has raised prices 10 times within the last six months, a total increase of around 65 percent. This has resulted in more shoplifting, fewer customers and less extension of credit.
Rahab says the huge price increase was not planned, but is necessary to keep the store running.
Rahab considers C & C Superette, a block away, to be his principal competitor. Juan Mukhil, the owner of C & C, has been operating singlehandedly for 23 years. Like Shahin, C&C carries many different products, but it is able to offer lower prices because it has no employees and therefore fewer expenses.
“People always want to find a cheaper price and Juan can offer that,” says Rahab. “I can’t simply cut down on my prices.”
But Rahab’s advantage over Mukhil is his ability to open for longer hours. With two employees, Shahin stays open several hours longer than C & C.
Rahab remains optimistic about the future and hopes that the economy will improve soon. While his business has not suffered drastically so far, he knows “there are never any certainties in the world.”