Lebanese grocery store showcases diversity

Pitaland is a Brookline Mediterranean-style bakery and grocery store. Currently owned by Joe Chahine, Pitaland has been a popular shopping spot on the Boulevard since 1980. Photo by Carrie Garrison.

Pitaland is a Brookline Mediterranean-style bakery and grocery store. Currently owned by Joe Chahine, Pitaland has been a popular shopping spot on the Boulevard since 1980. Photo by Carrie Garrison.

By: Carrie Garrison

It’s hard to miss the burnt red, tile roof that marks Brookline Boulevard’s only Mediterranean grocery, Pitaland. The smell of spices entices customers into the store where a mesmerizing pita bread machine sits behind a glass wall, allowing customers to view the process first-hand.

The cream-colored walls and wire racks give the store a tidy feel. Olives of different shapes and colors in bins line the walls and smell like vinegar and the Mediterranean Sea. The employees chat in their native tongues, including Aramaic, Greek and Arabic.

Owner Joe Chahine bustles through the store, overseeing employees and his family members. He is short in stature, but his warm personality fills the whole store. He loves to tell stories about Lebanon in his heavily accented English.

“I was a school teacher back home in Lebanon,” Joe says. “My wife was a student in the high school next door, and that’s it, that’s when it started.”

Joe was planning to return to Lebanon after spending his honeymoon in America in 1974, but the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, made it too dangerous for them to return.

“My brother built the brick oven right here on [704 Brookline Blvd.], and he started making pita bread with a shovel,” Joe says. “I worked for him until 1980. In 1980 I bought the business from him … and in 1990 I bought the building here.”

Joe’s radiant smile and positive attitude complement his hardworking nature. He is proud of his sought-after pita bread. Joe bought his pita bread machine in Beirut after purchasing the building and began making Pittsburgh’s best pita bread.

Joe said that growing up he never imagined he would end up where he is today.

“Listen, honest to God, it was like an accident. I had no other choice,” Joe says. “But, now I am happy. My kids love this business, and they’ve worked hard to make it better, and it’s already better!”

Joe’s shop incorporates its Lebanese roots but also welcomes other cultures. The café displays currency of many different nationalities on the outside surface of its stainless steel fan. Bill Vankirk, cook at Pitaland’s café, said customers always ask about the currency.

“It started a few years ago when one customer brought in some money from Europe,” Bill says. “We decided to put it on the wall and ever since then people give us their money from different countries.”

Gray brick accents the walls adjacent to the café. It sports trendy light fixtures, dark granite countertops and black barstools. Opened in May 2013, the café has become popular.

“Our hummus goes like crazy,” Joe says. “We fill the cooler five times a day…really, we are doing super.”

Refrigerated display cases line the walls closet to the cashiers. They tempt with spinach, cheese and meat pies — a best-seller — and cheeses, including Akkawi cheese in a jar of brine and Nabulsi cheese.

Wooden barrels with white plastic lids are lined up in the front of the store. They hold bulgur wheat, shelled wheat, green lentils and dried chickpeas. The tempting bakery case stands next to this displaying baklava in a variety of flavors, dried figs and peaches, apple rolls and almond chocolate rolls.

Light brown wooden carts line the middle of the shop, creating two aisles. They hold biscuits, hazelnut  wafers and date-filled cookies. On metal racks towards the middle of the shop Nutella is found nested between Joray Middle Eastern fruit rolls.

The diversity of the food is mirrored in the employees’ ethnic diversity. Pita baker Fred Wachira came to Brookline from Kenya.

“I taught a college in Japan, but I felt like I needed more knowledge. So, I came to the United States to be in school,” Fred says. “The community here is great…I live here, and I walk to work.”

Joe’s 21 employees are all from Brookline, and he boasts that they all walk to work. The employees encompass many different races including Lebanese, Arab, African and South African.

Marvin Wilson, houseware manager, was born in Iraq, raised in Turkey and lived in Lebanon. He wears a black and white turban and lights up when talking about the Brookline neighborhood.

“My neighbors are so cool…I have American and Lebanese on the right hand and on the left hand I have Syrian. I have beautiful neighbors,” Marvin says. “We have a lot of different ethnicities here in the store. Some are from Syria, America, South Africa and we have Lebanese as well.”

Marvin is Assyrian and found himself in Brookline when he no longer felt safe in Lebanon due to the civil war, that also kept Joe in America. As a Christian, he said he is safer in America.

“I worked here a few days after moving to America,” Marvin says. “First day rest, second day rest, third day work.”

Brookline’s hard-working community is tight-knit, Joe says. Customers know Joe and his family. He loves when customers ask for workers by name.

“Brookline is a beautiful community,” Joe says. “I know everyone by their first name after 41 years spent here.”

Joe says he has no inclination of slowing down. His white hair is the only sign of his age, 69, but his enthusiasm for his culture and his shop is evident.

“I still show up every morning at 4:30,” Joe says. “I come here, have my coffee, read the paper…I show up every day.”

Joe enjoys that his shop is family owned and run. It has the profit and reputation of a chain, but a ma-and-pop feel.

“We grew up working here, so we know most of the customers that come in,” Joe says. “I think that the best part of working here, too, is that everyone knows you, everyone knows everybody … It’s very rewarding.”

Video By: Nicole Green