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The Arizona Republic - Thursday, 23 September, 1999

The taste of freedom
Freedom, not profit, drives owner of ethnic food store

By Anita Mabante Leach

Said al-Khattaly and daughter Nadia
An aromatic array of international ingredients stocks the shelves of Said Khattaly's spotless Mesa store.

"Good morning! How are you? It's nice meeting you," he greets a visitor.

It is a Monday, a quiet start to his seven-day workweek.

The ever-present smile on Khattaly's face reaches from Latin America across the Mediterranean to India, a feat that matches a family's courage to leave all it knows for freedom.

A couple of customers in skirts and sensible shoes prowl the aisles, checking out fresh produce and exotic fruit preserves.

Khattaly's daughter, Nadia, deftly slices a few pounds of Greek feta from a large block and replaces it in brine at the cheese and olive cold case.

Hard-to-find spices tempt shoppers to sniff through their wrappers: dried sumac, basil, tarragon, Greek oregano, safflower, turmeric, curry powders and ground ginger, even adobo, a typically Hispanic spice blend.

Columns defining the store's cafe space are painted in the trompe l'oeil style, while murals echo the broad desert horizons of North Africa on the eatery's interior panels. Framed prints show scenes from bazaars "back home," Nadia explains, in Tunisia. Lively music that could be described as Middle Eastern pop filters through the atmosphere.

Giado World Food & Cafe forms a kind of cultural oasis for Khattaly, 60, and his family. He left Libya two decades ago, a decision that has haunted him since.

"You see, I have a master's degree in history and political science," Khattaly says. "I used to be a diplomat. I was a press secretary for (Libyan President Moammar) Gadhafi.

"When you go to school, and you study in the West, you don't like what is going on under these dictatorships. You see one man playing God. He's everything: He smiles at you, you get a job; he's mad, you'll be in jail. So I decided in 1980 that enough is enough. I went to Morocco, spent five years there, then came here."

Khattaly grew up in a small village, where he had many friends. He sometimes hears news from home via the telephone. His parents and one sister have died since he left, tempering the success he has experienced as a free man.

"You have to have courage, because you separate yourself from your society," he says. "Maybe it's better to forget. It's very hard."

Another sister and brother still live in Libya.

At the start of his business ventures, Khattaly quickly faced stiff competition in the dry-cleaning field.

"In the beginning, it was OK," he says. "Then there were dry cleaners (that) started to be like gas stations on every corner."

Prices went down, and Khattaly couldn't make any money.

For years, he had dreamed of owning a store. The local ethnic community had grown since he'd relocated the family in Mesa, signalling an opportunity. When dry cleaning vaporized, he sold his business and used what he recovered, coupled with a small business loan and money he'd saved from back home in Libya, to open an ethnic food market.

Khattaly traveled to check out ethnic food stores in Denver, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles, making notes on their setups and layouts. He had no experience owning a grocery store but remained determined. He developed a list of priorities he thought were most important.

"The first thing I insisted on was that the store be clean," he says. "I wanted it to be modern and organized."

He didn't want it to be a bazaar like back home or like some mom-and-pop stores that are crowded and confusing. He reasoned that potential customers wanted the same.

"Even though they come from underdeveloped countries, once they come here and see how this country is organized, I think they deserve something better," he says.

"(The store is) about 8,000 square feet, including the cafe. It's like going to any other supermarket, except it's a small size."

He also decided to make integrity his hallmark when dealing with the public.

"Honesty, that's my philosophy," he says. "It's the most important. And good manners, the treatment of people. You have to be smiling the whole day, whether you like it or not. Even if you get a customer who'll make you mad, you can't get mad."

It was initially named Sinbad, but a flurry of phone calls confusing Khattaly's store with a restaurant that boasted belly dancers quickly made him change his mind.

One of his sons suggested Giado, a variation on the town where Khattaly was born, "so our grandkids, they'll have an idea where they come from." All the family members, including Khattaly's five grandchildren, speak the Berber language.

He carved out space for the cafe after customers kept asking him about having a place to eat lunch. His wife, Aisha, 50, does some of the cooking. Daughter Nadia, 32, armed with a master's degree in agribusiness from Arizona State University, manages both store and cafe. His son Omar, 31, is overseeing the new wholesale component. Another son, Khaled, 33, has sold his dry-cleaning business and soon will be joining the rest of the family at the store.

Khattaly brings in a specialty produce order once a week from Los Angeles to coincide with the busy Friday-Saturday-Sunday shopping cycle. Early on Friday, he restocks the bins with such seasonal items as dates, fresh pistachios or almonds, fava beans, small seedless cucumbers for Persian pickles, dainty Italian eggplant and green and black figs. You won't see honeydew or other melons at Giado because Khattaly believes those items are available at larger stores.

By Monday evening, most of the fresh produce has been snapped up; Khattaly plans to add a second shipment. Eventually, a fresh meat counter will make the store complete.

A large cooler boasts such items as phyllo dough for making pastries, banana leaves for wrapping foods, frozen quail and specialty flours, such as semolina and farina for making cookies.

At a cold case, there are three kinds of feta cheese, French, Bulgarian and Greek ("They taste completely different," Khattaly says), plus several big bins of olives -- kalamata, colossal, green, black and the store's own specialty, olives spiked with chili.

Khattaly has a keen sense of who his customers are, culturally speaking, and says he can tell their background from what is in their grocery baskets.

"The Puerto Ricans buy Goya (brand) stuff," he says. "The Argentinians buy Cruz de Malta tea; the Indians and Pakistanis like particular spices."

If customers are from the Middle East, they buy pita bread; if the bread is lahvosh, chances are the client is Iranian; Afghanis favor another type of specialty bread.

Paying attention to such varied tastes has paid off in a loyal customer base. Khattaly relies on word of mouth, rather than advertising, to popularize Giado World Food. The family is recognized at ethnic community gatherings and churches, mosques and temples.

Still, Khattaly cannot rest on reputation. Often, along with daughter Nadia, he puts in 10 to 12 hours a day.

"If you don't spend that much time, then you can't make it," he says. "You have to be here every day, every hour, every minute. This is not like a franchise."

January will mark the store's second anniversary. Khattaly says the retail component is taking care of itself, while the newer wholesale division has begun selling to other ethnic markets and local restaurants. He says he feels lucky to be breaking even and paying his bills. Perhaps in a few years, there will be more profit. He knows there will be more hard work.

"I'm happy. I'm not expecting to make money, but as long as I'm not losing, I'm OK," he says stoically.

Still, his family's sacrifice for freedom tugs at Khattaly's memory.

"Our case is different. It's not like some people who emigrate from some countries just for economic reasons, who come to this country to make money.

"We didn't come to make money. We came seeking freedom and political asylum.

"As soon as things change, I'm going to go back to live. I'm over 60 years now and I'm going to retire. The kids want to stay here, but I want to go back, back to my village."

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