By Lorrie Baumann
In a society that’s deeply conflicted about much that’s happening in the Middle East and its potential repercussions for the American homeland, Houston grocer Phoenicia Specialty Foods offers a yummy reminder that we’re all on this planet together and our respective cultures have much to offer each other. Phoenicia Specialty Foods operates in two Houston locations, a 90,000 -square-foot west side location that’s like a warehouse for international foods, and the newer 28,000-square-foot location in downtown Houston.
The family behind the two stores (retail and wholesale operation), and the original restaurant: parents Zohrab and Arpi Tcholakian, who started the business by opening the Phoenicia Deli in 1983, brother Raffi, who oversees the company’s wholesale business and much of its import operation at the Phoenicia Foods Westside location, brother Haig, who curates the stores’ beer and wine offering and is half the marketing team along with sister Ann-Marie, who also manages the downtown store, also still operate the original restaurant that’s the particular province of the matriarch of the family. “It’s in our blood, and we are cut from the same cloth in regards to our work ethic, passion and detail-oriented nature. Mom is the matriarch of the restaurant, Arpi’s Phoenicia Deli restaurant, which is where it all began. She’s definitely the most famous out of all of us. Everybody recognizes her because she’s always in the restaurant,” says Ann-Marie. “My parents don’t want to retire; they love the business; they love the energy. They really enjoy providing these services and these hard to find specialty items to the community, and also having the opportunity to interact with friendly faces. Dad is always in the store teaching employees and customers about the products’ cooking techniques and origins.”
The stores’ product mix includes more than 50,000 SKUs representing products from more than 50 countries and is focused on international specialty items, especially Middle Eastern, Eastern European and European specialties. Many of the bakery items and prepared foods are produced in house, with some commissaried over from the West Side location to the downtown store.
“There are other stores who sell some of the same products, like olive oils and cheeses, and they call it gourmet, but these were staples that we grew up with and were always in our home… So, we try to keep the prices reasonable on these quality selections. We work to transfer cost saving to our customers through the economies of scale provided by our import buying power at our west side Houston headquarters,” says Ann-Marie.
The Tcholakian family are ethnic Armenians who were living in Lebanon when civil war broke out there. As the war intensified, the family began looking for a way out in 1979, particularly since Arpi was eight months pregnant with her youngest and wanted a safe place to raise her children. The family had a cousin in Houston who lived next to a hospital, so when flight became a matter of survival, Houston it was.
Zohrab, an architectural engineer, got a job in the oil industry, and things were going fine until the oil industry collapsed in the early 1980s. Zohrab decided that the time was right to leave the industry and start his own business, following the example of his father, who had owned a neighborhood store in Beirut. “He didn’t want to wait for his pink slip, so he convinced my mom,” Ann-Marie says. In 1983, he and Arpi opened a little cafe on the west side of Houston where they offered deli items and shawarmas, which Arpi described to her customers as a sandwich that resembled “a Middle Eastern burrito.”
“Back when my parents started, they had to educate people. They always wanted to make it international because they had a mix of culinary influences being Armenians born in cosmopolitan, European-influenced Lebanon,” says Ann-Marie. “Back then, when my parents started, not many knew what hummus dip was in Texas. Now everybody knows what hummus is.”
As the cafe’s following grew, the Tcholakians added more and more grocery to the business. “It was a struggle in the ’80s for my parents to keep the business open. It just took a lot of work and dedication to keep the business alive in the 1980s in a collapsed economy,” Ann-Marie says. “My brothers and I used to do our homework and watch TV in the back of the store. People knew our lives.” The downtown store opened five years ago after the developer of the building in which the store is now located offered them a space on the ground floor of a residential tower in a neighborhood that hadn’t seen a grocery store for 40 years. “We were very attracted to what the city was doing and what the Downtown District was doing. There is a lovely park next door called Discovery Green with lots of programming and culture, catering to Houston’s diversity. It was a natural fit for Phoenicia,” Ann-Marie says. “We’ve always felt very connected to the Houston’s growth, and it was really exciting to be part of the revitalization of downtown.”
In addition to the grocery, downtown Phoenicia Foods has an in-house beer and wine bar called MKT BAR. This gastropub concept offers comfort food with an international twist, artisan beers, boutique wines, music and art programming and has become a hub for locals and visitors alike. Monday nights are Fun and Games Nights with retro board games, ping pong and more. Wednesdays are Vinyl and Vino Nights with guest disc jockeys playing their favorite vinyl records on stage. Tuesdays and Thursdays are popular MKT Steak Nights, “offering a nice steak for a minimal amount of money, which draws people from the neighborhood,” Ann-Marie says. Cartoons & Cereal is a new event on Saturday mornings, with retro cartoons on the televisions from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. “People are always gravitating to the TVs,” Ann-Marie says. “It’s always been our goal to make Phoenicia Specialty Foods and MKT BAR down-to-earth and fun.”
“For the downtown location, we work hard to create events that attract attention, to gain a clientele. In the urban market space, you have to do a little more to capture people’s attention and to create a neighborhood destination and feel,” Ann-Marie says. “Downtown Houston is still emerging, and so we had to put a lot of energy in from the beginning to grow the business. That’s the reason why MKT BAR exists today.”
“A lot of people come to MKT BAR for a music performance for example, and then they buy their feta cheese to take home. It’s a symbiotic relationship between MKT BAR and the grocery,” she continues. “There are other customers who come for the groceries and discover MKT BAR and are amazed. They work hand in hand very well.”