Caitlin Whelan, fourth-generation owner, Sahadi's
On the expansion and evolution of a 125 year old family business.
Thanks for reading! This independent newsletter is fueled by likes and shares, so if you're into it, here's how you can help: Head to the bottom of the page and like or comment on this post. You can also share with friends far and wide. I cannot thank you enough!
Sahadi’s is a New York City-based family business that includes a grocery store in Brooklyn Heights, a grocery store that also has a bar and specialty liquor store in Sunset Park, a brand new food stall in Manhattan, and an importing company. For well over 100 years, it’s been a destination for hard-to-find spices, an incredible bulk coffee and nuts selection, and delicious pre-made food.
Whenever I’m there, I manage to buy the thing I came for, a few things I didn’t, and I can’t leave without getting a man’oushe, a Lebanese flatbread with za’atar. Caitlin Whelan and members of her family own and manage the various locations, and she and I talked about the expansion and evolution of a 125 year old family business.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Caitlin Whelan: I am a fourth generation Sahadi. My parents and my uncle are the current owners of all of our locations, and I came into the business in 2020. I had worked here pretty much my whole life helping out because it was just part of my family. I went to Penn State for hospitality management and I'm an event planner by trade. I worked at MoMA actually right before I came here full time.
The reason I was excited to work here full time is, I remember a few years ago, we were looking into opening Industry City and I was looking at the area and I said, "This could be fun for us. This could be a more modern Sahadi’s.” I was excited to bring events to my family business, for my passion and the family business becoming one. I planned the whole events program at Industry City. We have live music every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We do birthdays, bat mitzvahs, weddings, anything you can think of. It was really fun to bring that into the family.
Eventually, I became an owner of Sahadi’s Spirits, which is our new liquor store, and I became an owner of Sahadi's Pier 57. I do a little bit of everything.
I am an owner of these locations because they’re new. When opening these new locations, there are multiple people that are owners, so it's not just me or just them. We try to keep ownership within the family unit. You’ll see me and my brother on the floor every single day. We do have people that we work with that are like family to us that are not technically blood related, but they are our family. They come to our Christmas. They are in the family. As of right now, it is just family that are owners, but that doesn't mean it will be like that forever.
Brianna Plaza: Walk me through the history of the store.
Caitlin Whelan: In 1898, we opened a little shop in Little Syria in Manhattan. In 1948, the Brooklyn Bridge was built (ED note: This date likely related to the renovations made to the bridge around that time), so a lot of the Arabic community moved to downtown Brooklyn, so we moved around that time. We moved our store to Atlantic Avenue and it’s been there ever since. We've always been known for our spices, our hummus, selling things that you can't find somewhere else. If you’re looking for an ingredient that you've probably not even heard of, we likely have it. That's what we were, and I think still are, to the neighborhood.
People ask all the time to expand. But we're a family business, it’s very hard for us to expand quickly. In 2019 we decided, "You know what? Let's do Industry City. What if we could serve food to people while they're here shopping?” We opened Industry City right before COVID. That was a pretty rough start considering this was about August, September of 2019 and then, of course, March 2020 happened. We were still open because we're an essential business and we wanted to make sure people had their food.
With Pier 57, we were actually approached to open there and we said, "We've never done a kiosk before. People ask us all the time to come back to Manhattan," and it's crazy because we opened right where Little Syria used to be. It’s really cool especially for me knowing my great, great family members worked there and now I'm there with a new project. We just opened in November, but, so far, it's going really well.
Peer 57 is counter service, so you're going there for a sandwich. You're going there for a glass of Lebanese wine. You're going there for a snack on your way home from work or whatever the case may be. We do not have groceries there. We have some small things like olive oil and nuts, but it's not a grocery store. It's like an on-the-go Sahadi's.
In 2023, we opened Sahadi’s Spirits. Because of Industry City, we’d already been importing wines from underrepresented regions for the bar. During Covid, we were allowed to sell bottles in store and people were loving it, but when Governor Cuomo took that rule away, people were very upset. We decided, "You know what? We could import the wines and sell them ourselves." We wanted to show that you can find great wines from places like Lebanon and Palestine. We carefully curated every bottle that comes into that store and want our offerings to be as special as possible. We also now sell Arak, which is the national drink of Lebanon. We have some really nice stuff in there.
We also have our importing business, Sahadi’s Fine Foods. My father manages that space and he basically travels the world and finds vendors from different countries and brings in their best products. That's why we have all these amazing products, because we bring them in ourselves. It's really great to have these vendors that we know from different countries and different cities because we can get the best products.
Brianna Plaza: What about the last few years made it the right time for expansion?
Caitlin Whelan: I think it was more that we are a very local business. If you live in Brooklyn, you're more likely to know about Sahadi’s than if you live somewhere else. I think we were trying to plan out how we would maintain our legacy. We have customers that say, "My grandparents brought me here when I was a kid," and we hope that they'll bring their grandchildren, but we need something else to make sure we can stay alive and stay going.
We have a lot of team members, too. We want them to have jobs. We want to make sure that we keep the legacy going, so we figured, okay, how can we keep building, but be a little bit more modern? But we can't go too modern because the whole point of Sahadi's is the old world feel. It just felt like, "Let's try it and see how it goes." It's really cool because we have a lot of customers at Industry City that came from Atlantic Avenue. They wanted to see the new shop, and then we also have people that have never heard of us from. They're here now all the time, and they're like, "This is my favorite place to come for salsa night on Friday night.” So as we grow, we also expand on our customer base and it's really nice to see.
Brianna Plaza: I know you were approached to set up in Manhattan, but had you been thinking about going back into the city before that?
Caitlin Whelan: Yeah, we definitely wanted to go back into Manhattan. Not that we would ever leave our Brooklyn stores, but we would like to add another grocery. It wouldn't be as big because it's very hard to have a large space in Manhattan. We would want to bring our classic items that we're known for to a space in Manhattan. Pier 57 is a test drive to see what are people looking for. When I'm at Pier 57, people ask, "Oh, are you guys going to have this product here?" I always tell them we can try and bring it in. I mean, we have our own importing company, so we can really bring anything that we have access to. We really listen to customer feedback. Anytime somebody asks for something, we say, "Okay, let's see," and then we almost always have it one to two days later. It's really just hearing what people are looking for and seeing how we can cater to them.
Brianna Plaza: Your core products are Middle Eastern, but you also carry a good amount of non Middle Eastern ingredients. How have you adapted to customer tastes over the years?
Caitlin Whelan: We really listen, like I said, to what customers are looking for. We have a whole team that brings in products and we always think, "What are we looking for in a grocery store? What are we looking for that we can't find," or, "What do we wish we had? We don't have popcorn here. Okay, let's find the best, most on-brand popcorn we can find.” We really test out the products and we try the products, then we sell them. We see if it works. If people are like, "This isn't something I'm looking for," okay, then we'll try something else.
But also, times have changed and people's tastes have changed. Sometimes, we'll have a product that just doesn't sell anymore, and that's when we have to say, "Okay, well, we don't want to waste food, so we will stop selling it.” But then if we get 10 requests for it back, we'll see if we can get it back. It really depends, but we want to sell what people are looking. We want you to come to our store and not have to then go to another grocery store after to get some basic things, but we also want you to get your Sahadi essentials. That's why we have some things that you might see in other stores, but we try our best to keep it as local or authentic as possible.
Brianna Plaza: Sahadi’s recently published a cookbook, how has that expanded your business? Do you find that you've reached a new audience or is it mostly your existing customers?
Caitlin Whelan: The cookbook is really cool. My mom, Christine Sahadi Whelan, actually wrote the cookbook. She started the prepared foods department on Atlantic Avenue when she was younger. She used some of those recipes from her grandma or her mom, but some of them she came up with on her own. We still make those recipes to this day whether it's from her as a kid or from her grandparents.
From what I've noticed, people will come to Sahadi's and they'll buy a spice like sumac or ras el hanout for one recipe and then not know what to do with the rest of it. As the spice sits there, it loses the flavor, so she wanted to create a cookbook with other things you can do with that spice. There are so many other ways to incorporate Middle Eastern spices into everyday meals. That's what she did with the cookbook, and people have really loved it. She also signs them if you're in the store. I'm really proud of her for writing it. It took a lot of work, while on top of running the stores we already have, to write a cookbook, but there's been really great feedback on it. It's a really amazing book.