When Arab Americans and immigrants started to set up shop in the Brookhurst corridor of West Anaheim in the 1980s and 1990s they started to transform a seedy rundown part of town into a cultural destination.
Arab American Heritage Month
This story is the part of an ongoing series highlighting Arab American business owners and community based organizations as part of Arab American Heritage Month in April.
One of the first to do so was the Khouraki family who opened a specialty grocery store on Brookhurst street in 1988 selling international goods.
Today Brookhurst street and the surrounding areas are home to several Arab owned businesses that attracts people from all over Southern California: for a taste of traditional pastries like Knafeh, for games of backgammon at local hookah lounges or simply to shop at stores that sell Arab staples like authentic pita bread.
Business owners and community members have been calling on city leaders for more than a decade to recognize those efforts — revitalizing that part of town without any city subsidies — with signs identifying the area as Little Arabia.
Anaheim’s city council so far has resisted the effort, unwilling to even bring such a recognition up for a council vote.
In the midst of all this, the business owners have adapted to the economic devastation due to the Coronavirus pandemic after losing commerce. Some say an official recognition could help bring business to the area and generate more sales tax for the city.
Voice of OC is venturing out to feature restaurant and shop owners during Arab American Heritage Month to see how they’ve adjusted their businesses during the pandemic and how they overcame the struggles of opening a small business.
A Landmark Grocery Story in Little Arabia
When Sammy and Noha Khouraki opened Altayebat Market it was very hard to find Middle Eastern food staples to buy so they set out to change that.
“What my father envisioned was that he would have a grocery store that would pretty much take you back to being back in the Middle East,” said Romy Khouraki who now manages the store his parents started.
Originally the Khourakis set up shop on Cerritos Avenue but later moved to a bigger location to meet the needs of the community. They started out selling Romanian goods to the refugees there a language Sammy picked up and still speaks with customers that visit him.
After a while more Arab owned businesses started to open up.
“We were pretty much the only Middle Eastern store in the area,” Romy said. “We started noticing like Kareem’s Falafel came and then there were a couple other restaurants that opened shortly afterwards.”
Romy said it was the start of an Islamic school and mosque that attracted Arabs to the area and the businesses that followed with many popping up in the 1990s.
Sammy came to America from Syria at the age of 18 in 1965 to attend Cal State Los Angeles. Years later he left his corporate job buying international goods for Kmart to bring his kids to the Orange Crescent School. His children now help run the store.
“We tried to think about what we could do and gradually we decided to open the store,” Sammy said in a phone interview with the Voice of OC.
Altayebat has become a Little Arabia landmark for many in the community with regular customers who remember when Romy was merely two years old as well as a new generation of shoppers who frequent the store.
“We have customers literally since day one that are still coming,” Romy said. “The first generation is now the second generation is now the third generation.”
Adapting to a Pandemic
Since the pandemic, business has dropped by 10%, Romy said.
For Sammy, the pandemic meant he could no longer spend his days at the store he started decades ago and instead had to stay home and pop in briefly to see his customers.
Romy said his father would be there six days a week from opening to close before the pandemic.
“He’ll be helping customers, he’ll be putting their groceries in their shopping cart, picking up boxes for them. My father, Mashallah, is the landmark of Altayebat market,” he said.
Sammy has been vaccinated and is back at the store more regularly now.
Romy added that many of their customers are staying home too even though they still need groceries.
“What we did was we partnered with Instacart for delivery and curbside orders,” Romy said. “We’ve also started taking orders on our website. We’re also opening an hour early between eight and nine so that way we can have the elderly customers come in without having to wait in line.”
Altayebat is only letting 10 customers in the store at a time.
“We would like to take care of our community, you cannot enter without a mask,” Sammy said.
Recognizing Little Arabia
The Khourakis are in support of the city recognizing Little Arabia — a recognition they’ve seen community members push for over many years now.
“It would recognize Middle Eastern culture as a whole, especially currently with the way COVID has changed businesses over the past year,” Romy said. “It’s a central hub for Middle Eastern customers in general where you can pretty much come spend a full day and get everything that you need for the entire week or entire month.”
Sammy had purchased the shopping center across the street hoping Middle Easterners would open up shop there and they did.
“It was one of one of my father’s visions to have something similar to Little Saigon or Little Armenia for us Middle Easterners,” Romy said.
For Sammy a recognition is not about helping business but about acknowledging the community.
“The business (God Almighty) will provide,” he said. “Little Arabia — the name — if it is possible to be posted on the freeway would be excellent.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.