The Quest to Save SF’s Arab-Owned Corner Stores, One Bottle of Arak at a Time
SOURCE: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
BY: ESTHER MOBLEY
The Ramallah Golden Arak bottle may not look like much to you if you didn’t grow up watching your uncles drink it, or if your first sip of alcohol wasn’t a carefully diluted pour of the pungent, 100-proof spirit. But to Palestinian Americans, the red and gold label is a reminder of home.
“Somebody always had a bottle,” says Miriam Zouzounis of the most popular type of arak, a type of distilled grape and aniseed spirit produced throughout the Middle East.
But until recently, anyone in the U.S. with a Ramallah bottle had likely carried it back in a suitcase. Although Ramallah was the first arak imported into this country, the West Bank distillery stopped shipping its product here during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.
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Suddenly, though, in 2014, those red and gold labels started popping up at Arab-owned corner stores around the Bay Area. Alongside them were bottles of Palestinian beer from Birzeit Brewery, and Palestinian wines from wineries including Cremisan, Ashkar, Julia and Latroun. At stores like Ted’s Market (1530 Howard St.) in SoMa, which Zouzounis’ parents own, the Bay Area’s community of Palestinian Americans could now find an unprecedented selection of bottles from their homeland.
They can thank one of their own: Zouzounis, a native San Franciscan of Greek and Palestinian heritage. Not only the daughter of corner-store owners, she is also the West Coast representative of Terra Sancta Trading Co., an importer of Palestinian wine, beer and spirits.
Terra Sancta was founded in 2014 by Jason Bajalia, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., but like Zouzounis grew up in San Francisco hanging out in family-owned corner stores. Along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Bajalia’s family fled in the aftermath of 1967’s Six-Day War. They settled in San Francisco, where his uncles owned Russia Avenue Grocery and Cleveland Market in the Excelsior.
For Zouzounis, working with Terra Sancta is an extension of her primary mission: to support — maybe, even, to save — the Bay Area’s Arab-owned corner stores, a community that raised her and, she feels, is increasingly under attack.
Ted’s Market, the Zouzounis family store in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, is busy and brightly lit, a friendly place where regulars are greeted by name. Family mementos line the walls. Alongside the tight, orderly rows of packaged foods and wine bottles, a small line often forms for the sandwich counter, which turns out egg sandwiches in the morning, then tri-tip sandwiches, meat loaf and hummus wraps, often with a stuffed grape leaf on the side.
Miriam’s grandparents Theodore and Penelope (Ted and Penny) Zouzounis opened the store in 1967. It was the summer of the Palestinian exodus — but also the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Just across the street from the store, at Howard and 11th streets, was music promoter Bill Graham’s office. Graham tapped Ted’s to supply the red apples famously distributed to concertgoers leaving the Fillmore — a relationship that continues to this day.
Ted and Penny’s son, David, eagerly took over his parents’ business. “It’s the only job he’s ever had,” says Miriam Zouzounis of her father. Her mother, Lorene, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, had grown up in her own family’s corner stores: Zarou Market and Kelleher’s Market in Noe Valley.
In its half-century of existence, Ted’s Market — which is in the process of applying for legacy business status — has fought to keep up with the times. Initially a grocery store that served the neighborhood’s emerging Filipino population, it later evolved into a deli and caterer.
For the Zouzounis family, owning a corner store is more than a job. It is a community, an identity, an inheritance. Many owners live above their corner stores. They socialize there. “This is how people stay in this country,” Zouzounis says: “They pass the store licenses to the next generation.”
And business, for a couple of generations, was good. Corner-store owners “were able to purchase homes, to send their kids to college,” Bajalia says.
These days it’s not so easy. Because of what Zouzounis refers to as a string of “anti-retail” laws and regulations, many Arab-owned grocery stores in San Francisco are now struggling to stay viable. Zouzounis points to laws targeted specifically at businesses with type 20 and 21 licenses — essentially, convenience stores selling alcohol — such as bans on “loitering.” Then there’s the ban on flavored tobacco, which went into effect in San Francisco this month. It will have a big impact on corner stores, Zouzounis says, especially the Muslim-owned stores that don’t serve alcohol for religious reasons and depend disproportionately on tobacco sales.
“These are some of the last stores in San Francisco that have EBT and food stamps,” Zouzounis says. “The corner stores are forces for community good. But now we’re just painted as selfish businesses hawking flavored tobacco.”
Zouzounis decided to get involved, first as an advocate member of the Arab Grocers Association, which counts 400 businesses in the city. In 2015 she was named commissioner for San Francisco’s Small Business Commission. On behalf of the corner stores, she’s been involved in a number of local political campaigns, including that of Christine Johnson, who lost the District Six supervisor race in November.
It’s harder to measure the impact, but Zouzounis believes that her work with Terra Sancta is part of advancing the lives of the Bay Area’s Palestinian American community and their corner stores, too. To her, the goals of Terra Sancta and the fate of the corner stores are inextricably linked.
Terra Sancta’s mission: to support the highest-quality producers of Palestinian wine, beer and spirits, especially those committed to using ancient techniques and indigenous plant material.
In other words, don’t expect Merlot. The wines in Terra Sancta’s portfolio are made with grapes like Dabouki, Baladi, Hamdani and Jandali, all native to Palestine. “Some of these wineries have been planted to vines since before Roman times,” Bajalia says.
The grapes may sound unfamiliar to most American wine drinkers, but the stories behind Terra Sancta’s products sound compelling in any language. There’s Cremisan, a Catholic monastery in the West Bank that’s got terraces of ungrafted, 150-year-old vines. A wall built by Israel bisects the property; the winemakers have to travel through a security checkpoint when visiting their own vineyards.
There’s Latroun, another monastery whose winery is full of underground caves built to escape air bombings during the 1967 conflict.
There’s Ashkar, a wine label made by a family forced out of their home in the northern Galilee village of Iqrit during the 1948 Nakba. The Ashkars now live elsewhere, but they buy grapes from the Tunisian Jewish settler who farms the land that once belonged to their family.
(The question of what constitutes “Palestinian” wine is complicated. Because Palestine is not recognized by the United Nations, any exported alcohol must be labeled as a product of the West Bank. More controversial is the rise of wineries in Israeli settlements, which have been ordered by the European Union and the U.S. to be labeled with the term “Israeli settlement” rather than simply “product of Israel.”)
“Corner stores were the first places in San Francisco that carried us,” Bajalia says of the Terra Sancta beverages. “Palestinians here want to support Palestinian products.” But thanks to Zouzounis and a local distributor, Nomadic, Terra Sancta isn’t just confined to corner stores anymore. First they began selling their wines, beers and araks to Middle Eastern restaurants like Arabian Nights, Dyafa and Tawla. Now they sell to a diverse range of spots, like the Morris and Fig & Thistle.
Whereas selling Dabouki wine was “nearly impossible” five years ago, Bajalia says, the world of wine, beer and spirits has grown more inclusive. “I’m not saying it’s an easy job now,” he laughs, but the rise of natural wine, the revival of obscure types of spirits and the growing influence of social justice-minded chefs have all helped Bajalia and Zouzounis bring their wares to a wider audience.
Still, as broad as the audience grows, Zouzounis believes the foundation of Terra Sancta’s business will always be in corner stores.
“At the end of the day, people all know Ramallah,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to say, ‘Hey, we got it back.’”