South Charlotte

Mediterranean food; a meeting place, too

Sam Freij slides a demitasse cup of Turkish coffee across the counter with a smile.

“You haven't tried coffee until you've tried this,” he says, adding a cookie on the saucer.

Freij and his wife Suha, both 36, opened the Sahara Market in May on Piper Station Drive, across Rea Road from the Stonecrest shopping center.

It's a Mediterranean grocery that offers staples needed to make foods common in Middle Eastern cultures, including pita and nan breads, dried fruits, tahini, farina, more than 65 spices, olives and olive oils. They also offer flavored tobacco and hookah pipes, teas, fruit nectars, yogurt drinks, fresh hummus, an olive bar, sheep's milk products, European chocolates and frozen vegetables. More unusual items include pomegranate molasses and rose water.

The store has become part grocery, part meeting place for people from cultures across the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The Freijs are Palestinian Americans. They grew up in Kuwait City, Kuwait, in a diverse community that included transplants from Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Eqypt, Morocco and Sudan.

“It's been an advantage to be able to interact and blend because we have that experience,” Sam says.

The couple have lived in Charlotte since 1990, when they attended CPCC. Sam was previously a manager for an automotive business and Suha is a project consultant for Bank of America. Their son Zade is 8.

They say the idea to open the store came after they grew tired of traveling to Central Avenue in east Charlotte to find ingredients they needed. They conferred with other international friends who lived in southern Mecklenburg and decided enough families were close by to support a store.

Suha says they looked in their pantry at home and started calling phone numbers on the backs of boxes and jars to establish relationships with food companies.

Sam says he enjoys the challenges of meeting the needs of his diverse customers. For example, during Ramadan he's had to stay open late – sometimes past midnight – for Muslim customers who fast at home during daylight hours and eat larger meals at night.

“It's like Thanksgiving every day of Ramadan, so they come in needing things to make soups and salads, for example,” Suha says.

The Freijs enjoy helping customers explore the store, explaining what unfamiliar ingredients can be used for, and printing recipes from the Internet.

“We want this to be a friendly place where anyone can feel at home,” Sam says.

Sam also is a travel agent and sells airline tickets to the Middle East and beyond, from the store.

He hopes to add a brick oven so he can bake meat pies to provide customers with quick meals. He's also considered adding a meat counter with butcher service.

On the way out, he offers a clipping from one of the mint plants that grow in urns outside the store.

“Add this to some tea and, if you like it, come back and I'll give you a root clipping,” he says, smiling again.