Elsafadi emphasizes personal connections

Mediterranean supermarket caters to customers with more pre-packaged foods and ready-to-eat items

The first thing shoppers see when they pull up to Elsafadi’s Mediterranean Supermarket, in the north end of Edmonton, are four gas pumps directly outside the store’s front doors.

But while they may look odd, they’re also appropriate. The pumps are a testament to the Elsafadi brothers’ ability to know their customers.

After all, this is Alberta, and gas, like food, is a mainstay.

More than a few pumps behind the decision to open a store here. Ali, Anwar and Willie Elsafadi also had the foresight to know a future addition to Edmonton’s LRT system would include a stop right next to the new store. Combined, they’ve got both drivers and public transit users covered.

The spacious, eclectic Mediterranean Supermarket, which opened in 2012, is the brothers’ second store in the area. But their roots in the grocery industry date back even further.

As teenagers, the trio got their start dealing fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and peppers to mom-and- pop pizza places in their neighbourhood. Later, they set up shop at a local flea market, and when demand grew large enough, installed a cooler in their garage and started handing out business cards listing their home address. It wasn’t long until, in 1987, they converted a modest, 1,000-square-foot space into a grocery shop. The original Elsafadi Brothers was born.

But it’s the new, 19,000-square-foot store that comes closest to fulfilling Anwar and Willie’s dream of combining an all-purpose neighbourhood grocery store and a specialty supermarket–a dream that the brothers have now realized, and one that’s earned them a loyal following in the city. (The third brother, Ali, passed away just after the new store opened.)

Step inside Mediterranean Supermarket and you’re met with a wave of Arabic music playing over loudspeakers, as well as the sights and smells of the exoticatinged produce section.

The Elsafadis use brokers to bring in specialty products whenever they’re in season on the other side of the world, including fresh figs, dates and prickly cactus pears. In the off-season, they stack crates’ full of dried varieties to tide customers over.

The brothers strive to carry the exact products their European and Middle Eastern customers grew up with. That includes olive oil from specific regions of Greece and Turkey, as well as several shelves’ worth of canned grape leaves, pomegranate syrup and tahini. In the freezer aisle sit packages of Egyptian mulukhiyah leaves, one of the store’s hot sellers.

For some customers, this level of geographic specialty is “like a brand name,” says Anwar.

There’s also an ample selection of cheese and fresh olives–six large bins of the latter–complemented by a meat section that’s entirely halal. Elsafadi’s doesn’t carry pork products of any kind.

Then there’s the hookas. Lining the walls of the store, perched atop the shelves and freezers, sit many models and colours for shoppers to choose from. Elsafadi’s also has a full, separate, in-house bakery for breads.

But the store’s crown jewel may well be its dedicated Middle Eastern pastry counter, which is a franchise of the local Paradiso Pastries chain. Cases of baklava and the like are stacked high. Noticing that fewer shoppers were buying ingredients to cook from scratch, the store responded by stocking more pre-packed foods as well as hot and cold ready-to-eat items from the deli.

Even as the Elsafadi name expands, however, the emphasis remains on making personal connections.

“We still have that one-on-one contact with customers,” Anwar says. “I’ll go behind the counter. I’ll go to the bakery. I’ll go to the produce department. We’re on the floor. We help customers. We like people walking into a family atmosphere.”

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