An Old Article - Iraqi food store finds niche

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Posted by Jeff from ( on Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 2:13PM :

Iraqi food store finds niche in Chaldeantown; Seven-Mile business enclave to undergo $35 million revitalization. (Business)

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co. Inc. by the Gale Group, Inc.

Byline: Maureen McDonald.

DETROIT -- The exotic scent of coriander, curry, cumin and sesame filters through Shorja Imported Foods, a 12-year fixture in the neighborhood filled with immigrants from Iraq and Lebanon.

In the old world tradition of Bhagdad, proprietor Jerry Boji continues to marinate pickles in trays of brine, sell Lebanese cucumbers in barrels and retail Basmati rice in 100-pound burlap bags. He also carries two brands of Iraqi cheeses along with Tamarind juice favored by pregnant women.

"People come from all over the region for Boji's bread, cheeses and spices because they aren't readily available in mainstream markets," said Isa Hasan, coordinator of a neighborhood revitalization project for the Arab-American & Chaldean Council.

Boji's business, which has fought crime, resident flight to the suburbs and vacant storefronts, expects to profit measurably from a new initiative for $35-million renovation plans in the neighborhood, coordinated by the Chaldean Council.

"What we want to do is strengthen the retail opportunity for ethnic merchants who have excellent products," Hasan added.

Boji says his business draws 150 people a day from around southeast Michigan.

Business booms on weekends when Chaldeans come back to Seven Mile to visit coffee shops, bakeries, cafes and restaurants in a neighborhood dubbed Chaldeantown. Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis.

Boji says he also gets a wide assortment of political and business students who seek to sample Iraqi culture and food for their term papers. Hasan would love to recruit merchants peddling African=American and other ethnic clothing and wares.

Linda Wimbash, a frequent shopper says Boji is very good to the African-American residents of the neighborhood. "He stocks special imports from Africa. He also feeds the poor people in the neighborhood. If you are hungry, he will give you a loaf of bread."

Boji sells 12 small loaves of Iraqi bread for $1, a very popular item in his store. He deals with a variety of peddlers who trade in Pakistani, Oriental and Middle Eastern specialties.

Gun powder tea is popular with Africans, Basmati rice for Pakistanis, Earl Grey tea and silver tea pots for Iraqis and Garuana juice for young people seeking an energy boost. He mixes his own spices.

The store is a hub of immigrant culture, with ads for homes, pleas for jobs and offers of handyman services written in Arabic tacked to the wall just inside the door.

"What we need most is to make the neighborhood safe. When people feel welcome, they will turn out in greater numbers," Boji said.

Shorja Foods

Contact: Jerry Boji, proprietor, 528 W. Seven Mile, Detroit

Specialty: Halva, basmati rice, Lebanese cucumbers, mango juice and fresh Middle Eastern spices

Outlook: The store's four employees, all relatives, see about 150 customers a day, 85 percent Chaldean. The surrounding nine-block community is undergoing a $35-million restoration and revitalization.

-- Jeff
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