What It’s Like to Open a Grocery Store in the Middle of a Pandemic
Name: Edouard Massih
Location: Greenpoint, Brooklyn
How many people eat together in your home? One. “I live one building away from Edy’s Grocer now. It’s a good and a bad thing.”
Avoidances: “I hate shredded coconut, sweet potatoes, and mixing sweet with salty (like pineapple on pizza).”
Edouard Massih, a professional chef and caterer, had been window shopping for a storefront for quite some time in his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, neighborhood before taking a leap of faith this past July and purchasing a deli (a neighborhood stalwart for 43 years), right in the middle of a global pandemic.
The bones were there but to make the shop his own, the store needed what he calls “an Edy Touch.” Months later, the metamorphosis is complete, and Edy successfully transformed an old Polish deli into a Lebanese specialty grocer. With customers both new and old, Edy’s Grocer has added a touch of zest and spice to the corner of Eckford Street and Meserole Avenue.
We caught up with Edouard, after four months of business, to talk shop (literally), find out where he gets his groceries, and learn what he eats for lunch every day off of his own menu.
Can you give me the backstory of what it was like to open a grocery store smack in the middle of a pandemic?
When the pandemic first hit, I owned a catering company and had to close it down. I had always wanted a storefront, and I knew Maria Puk very well, the owner of Maria’s Deli. She used to serve things like bacon, egg, and cheese; roast beef and cheese; turkey and cheese sandwiches; and also Polish specialties and soups. We had started talking a year ago about me potentially taking over the shop. She told me to “save up, and when I’m ready I’ll let you know.”
She called me on Memorial Day and said “I talked to my family I’m ready to do this.” In June, we started to make a deal. It took her a month to get 43 years worth of stuff out of there (she was a bit of a hoarder!), and there was emotional baggage with every little piece of the store. That was one of the harder journeys. By July 1, we had everything on paper and I was ready to rock and roll.
I grew up in a family where our days revolved around food. Our grandmother cooked all day. I started my own company because there just weren’t enough Lebanese places city-wide. I was able to grow a small team of three before opening up the grocery. Now I have a team of 12. I think the most beautiful part of our whole story is that Maria emigrated from Poland at the age of 10, and I emigrated from Lebanon at the age of 10. She took over the store at the age of 24, and I took it over at the age of 25.
Did you keep anything from Maria?
A lot of things that were already here stayed; I just beautified some things. I kept the countertop and her cash register. I kept her meat slicers, but they’re in the basement for now. Her fridges and freezers are also there. She had a really nice office table I’m using now. I kept the big deli fridge, the shelves, her Crock-Pots, ladles, spoons, tongs, pots, and pans. She had a really big 6-burner oven.
Were there any pandemic-related hiccups as you got started?
As weird as it sounds, Covid made it easier to get the project up and running. There were so many people available to work at the last minute at a reasonable price. I have been looking at this spot for so many years and knew what I wanted to do, from the windows to the shelves. It took us four weeks to give the place a face-lift. I didn’t change the build out at all — just gave it a little Edy Touch. Nothing drastic: I threw a coat of paint on, changed the floors, got rid of the old fridges.
I imagine after 43 years of business, Maria had a lot of regulars. Have they kept coming back?
That’s what I was going for — to keep the old customers and bring in new ones. I think we kept a few, but a majority of the real Polish community kind of stopped stopping by because it’s really different. A lot of Polish people still stop by, but they’re the younger generation, like Maria’s kids’ age, in their 30s. I think my food might be too “exotic” for the older generation — lots of spices, lots of citrus. Even Maria says to me all the time, “too much lemon, too much spice.” I’m getting more of the second generation.
What are some of the things you chose to stock the store with?
I worked with Sahadi’s to bring in Lebanese grocery items. I did an Instagram survey to get help with choosing what drinks we’d stock. I turned one of the fridges into a Bonjus, which is like a Lebanese kid’s juice box that we grew up drinking. I added my little touches by reaching out to different bread purveyors and local woman-owned business like Allie’s Banana Bread and Gracie Baked. I have these dried flowers I love at Union Square Market which I get wholesale now. I truly curated every piece that went into the space to make it different and stand out.
One thing I will say is that the bombing that happened in Lebanon on August 4 really has impacted the groceries we’ve been purchasing. A lot of things are not coming in, and we’ve been running out of some things. We’re trying to figure out what we have to work with until Lebanon gets back on their feet. I have been working with SEAL which stands for Social and Economic Action for Lebanon.
Grocery stores are one of the places that people have to go to. Have you felt essential?
Covid helped oddly. The young generation that lives in this neighborhood used to be people who worked in Flatiron and got Sweetgreen for lunch. Now that everyone in Greenpoint is working from home, they want to support their local businesses. I think if it were normal times, we’d have fewer people come in for breakfast and lunch.
We’re kind of like a one-stop shop for all, especially for people who don’t know how to cook or are sick of cooking after nine months. We’ve got it all for you. You can get it hot and fresh and eat now, take it cold and heat it up later, grab dips and go to the park. We’re versatile.
What are the most popular items at your store right now?
I didn’t realize how vegan-forward this neighborhood was. When we started, I had way fewer vegan options on the menu — we had to work our way up. Now I have fatteh (yogurt tahini sauce), we had to switch the yogurt out to make it vegan. I didn’t have a vegan breakfast menu, but now I do. I make sure I have a vegan soup, vegetarian sandwich, and at least two to three vegan sides. Little things that can satisfy everyone who comes in. Just trying to make sure everyone is happy!
I also didn’t realize that people would be purchasing so many Middle Eastern groceries! When I was purchasing, my dad was like, don’t buy too much, go slowly. But then I learned that people were looking for them. I think it’s because people have really been cooking more and Middle Eastern cookbooks and chefs are popularizing the flavors.
I’m asking a lot about you feeding other people, but what does a day of food look like for you?
I’m definitely cooking less than when I opened the store; I’m trying to lean on other people more in the kitchen. I eat at least one meal at Edy’s Grocer every day. I’m not a big breakfast person so I normally have cold brew for breakfast. For lunch, I love our chicken noodle soup. It’s so warming and hearty. For dinner I love eating out in the neighborhood — I love Mexican, Thai, I eat it all.
Where do you do your grocery shopping?
Other than Edy’s my favorite market is called JSS Manhattan Fruit right near my home. It’s a little bodega run by an Asian couple. They have everything. They have the best produce from the Bronx, and she washes all the herbs and picks her pomegranate seeds herself (there’s not one piece of white in the arils). She even peels garlic herself. It’s a really awesome place; I used to source ingredients there for catering and I still go there all the time for my personal shopping. Big hauls are very minimal these days, though, because I eat a lot at the store and don’t cook as much at home.
How do you wind down?
I find it really hard. Even when I do, I’m thinking of what new item to add to the menu. It’s only the first four months — it hasn’t been that long. Mondays are my day off. I like to get my nails done or get a massage. I do a little something for me. I’ve been trying to get out of the kitchen and come home and work out. Being able to do little things like that can go a long way.
Favorite food memory from the past 8 months?
I was so bored out of my mind during quarantine, so I was recipe testing nonstop. I came up with this idea for breakfast empanadas and they’ve done so well at the store. I was putting eggs and beef or spinach and eggs in them. But now we’re doing bacon, egg, and cheese or just egg and cheese. I made an Edy’s Everything Seasoning with poppy seed, Aleppo pepper, black and white sesame, fennel seeds, salt, onion, and garlic on top.
What’s your plan for the holidays?
We recently launched Edy’s Favorites, a box of Lebanese groceries and specialty goods for the holidays that we’re shipping nationwide. That’s our holiday plan. We’re also going to have holiday catering — pans of food and larger sizes of our dips. Going into the new year, we’re looking into putting together a subscription healthy snack pack delivery full of vegan mezze and little snacks to munch on and get you through the week.
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.