CHICAGO: Eating Middle Eastern food has become far more acceptable and popular today than it was more than 20 years ago, say experts in the industry.
Although it appears that the popularity of Middle Eastern food is growing at a pace faster than many other ethnic food products in America, no one is collecting data in a comprehensive manner to demonstrate how impactful that increase has been.
Appearing on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, Middle East food experts Marissa Ziyad, marketing director for Ziyad Brothers Importing based in Chicagoland, and Matthew Jaber Stiffler, research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, said that despite the lack of official data, they believe the growth is strong and reflects a robust integration of Arabs and their culture into American society.
“In the late 1880s and early 1900s, wherever there was a concentration of Arabic-speaking folks, there was at least one cafe, coffee house, restaurant. You knew where the community was concentrated,” said Stiffler, who is also director of the Center for Arab Narratives, a national research institution through ACCESS, the largest Arab-American community non-profit in the country.
“Why would you put a place that serves Arab food in an area where there are no Arabs who are going to come eat. This is back, you know, the early 1900s … before the general American palate was interested in ethnic food and exploring different food options. So, if you had an Arab restaurant it was to serve the community. Some of the first businesses that Arab immigrants opened, besides their dry good stores and things like that, were cafes and restaurants to serve the community.”
Stiffler said there is an absence of comprehensive, nationwide research on Middle Eastern food sales and restaurants, unlike the abundance of data and statistics for products from the Italian, Polish, Jewish, African and other ethnic communities.
The history of the Arab community in America, however, has shown the process by which the popularity of its food and restaurants has spread to the American public.
As the Arab community grew and the economic value of their businesses became recognized, they began serving their food to non-Arabs.
“Part of it is the economic stream. The idea … in the early 1900s (was that) Arab restaurants served the Arab community. But then they realized we could make more money if we served everybody. So, they started marketing the kinds of food they had in different ways. They didn’t call it Arab food, they called it Mediterranean. They called it Middle Eastern. They called it Lebanese. And it made it more palatable to the American public,” Stiffler told Arab News.
“And then what happened in the 50s and 60s it became more fashionable in America to sample ethnic cuisine. You think of the mall food court where there is like a small restaurant from every kind of nationality. Arabs were really in the mix in there in making sure they had restaurants that related to that.
“It is still happening. You see it in every community. But because Arab communities are not as concentrated around churches and mosques and things as they used to be, they are much more spread out except in certain places in the country, you now find Arab restaurants just randomly. There might not be in an Arab community at all. It might just be one Arab family in a town but they opened a restaurant because they knew that nobody else could serve that food in the way they could so they are bringing their culture to the general public while also making some good money, hopefully.”
There is no data on Arab restaurant growth, numbers or locations in America. The National Restaurant Association, the largest foodservice trade association in the world which manages data on eateries, acknowledged they did not have enough data to discuss the topic on the radio show.
“There is no data on this. No one is tracking it,” Stiffler said. “Nobody is tracking how many of those restaurants exist in each city. Food entrepreneurship in the Arab community is huge and has grown in the last 20 years.”
Stiffler said that a common question from visitors to the Arab American National Museum is where they can eat Middle Eastern food. Dearborn, he said, has over 100 options, including Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Yemeni and Palestinian food.
The growth of the Arab restaurant symbolizes the presence of “a thriving community” and demonstrates that a community has “economic strength.”
One of the leading distributors of Middle Eastern food to ethnic retailers, major grocery store chains and restaurants is Ziyad Brothers Importing which is based in a western suburb of Chicago.
“We have seen an increase, I think we have seen 7 to 8 percent annually outpacing dry grocery stores, where the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean category fits. And I really do think that COVID had something to do with it. I think that a lot of consumers were being a lot more adventurous with different cuisines and of course during that time we were pushed to have to cook at home and try new things,” Marissa Ziyad said.
“But even people discovering the Mediterranean diet over the last couple years has really grown our food category as well because the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest and most popular diets in ways of eating that a lot of people really follow. All the ingredients, all the products that you need for that kind of cooking, that kind of eating, that is us. And grocery stores are recognizing that. They are recognizing the need for different ethnic products, and just a larger variety.”
Ziyad Brothers Importing was founded in 1966 as the Syrian Bakery & Grocery, one of the first pita bread bakeries in the country. Today, the company is an ingredient-based distributor of 90 percent of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food options in the US retail market. That includes Ziyad-branded products, along with more than 20 other Mediterranean brands that they distribute exclusively .
“There is one thing that holds in our brand. It really is the authenticity of the products, of the flavors and the tastes that have remained consistent and true to what all of you are used to eating back home. We are proud to represent that. We really did start out as a small bakery, grew into a distribution company and then grew larger into the largest distribution company of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean foods,” Ziyad said.
She said that the company has seen a 7 percent increase over other brands in the mainstream US market. The company began with about 20 products, she said, “but today have over 900, close to 1,000 ingredients and products.”
“Now as we grow, we will be encompassing more companies like ours to make sure we are covering different parts of that world. So we are going into Turkish food, we’re going into North African, Eastern European, but mainly of course, Middle Eastern Mediterranean food.”
Ziyad said that Middle Eastern food became popular over the past 30 years due to several factors, including the presence of American soldiers who served in the region — especially along with the Saudi-led coalition that expelled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the 1990s. American soldiers tasted the food there and wanted more when they returned home.
Another factor was the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020. Ziyad said that during that nearly three-year pandemic, Americans sought to explore more exciting recipe options and turned to Middle Eastern foods. Ziyad maintains an exhaustive recipe list on Arab and Middle Eastern food on the company’s website at Ziyad.com.
The third major factor is the rising popularity of healthy dieting. Ziyad said the Mediterranean diet “is one of the most popular” and is based on staple Middle Eastern ingredients and foods including legumes, olive oil, hummus and lentils.
Ziyad said the company’s top sellers in the US market are tahini, ghee, red/green lentils, falafel mix, chickpeas, orange blossom and rose water, and labneh and yogurts including jameed, a key ingredient in mansaf.
Hummus is the number-three seller in the country behind Mexican chips, salsa and guacamole, she said.
More needs to be done to produce data on the fast-growing Middle Eastern food market, which both Ziyad and Stiffler agree reflects the growth and advancement of the Arab community in America.
Ziyad and Stiffler made their comments during an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show, broadcast Wednesday Aug. 23, 2023, on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 radio and Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700 radio.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.