By Annemarie Mannion Special to the Tribune
A gold, onion-shape dome decorating the entrance to this storefront is one sign that Sultan's Market is not your average convenience store. So is the long line of people that weaves between shelves packed with grocery store offerings. But the food they're waiting for is what really sets this store apart: mild or spicy falafel sandwiches, bowls of rice and lentils, spinach pie by the slice.
This Middle Eastern food is a far cry from the meatball sandwiches, hot dogs and Polish sausage that were first offered when the owner, May Ramli, opened the store at 2057 W. North Ave. 12 years ago. Ramli, who emigrated from Jordan in 1984, acknowledged that her first instinct was to offer food that she thought customers would recognize and like. But one day she brought in some fresh hummus she had made at home in her blender. To her surprise, it was a hit. "I didn't know they would know hummus, but it sold out," she said. "They knew hummus from a can. They said they never ate hummus like mine." That was the beginning of the end in the store for typical American sandwiches. "No hot dogs. No Polish sausage. No Italian beef. No grease," said Ramli, who continues to oversee preparation of the foods and work the cash register.
Departing from the past Although running a restaurant is now part of Ramli's business, visiting one was not a common experience when she was growing up in Jordan. "I didn't go to a restaurant until I was 18 years old. I couldn't afford it," she said. She said she learned in her mother's kitchen how to make the dishes that now are staples to her customers. The popularity of her Middle Eastern food, much of it vegetarian, has enabled Ramli to expand the store that she operates with her son, Shadi, 25. Ramli also has a daughter, Nesreen, a college student who helps in the store during the summer. Sultan's Market's fresh food has become "the backbone of the business.If it weren't, we wouldn't be here because the rent is so high," said Shadi Ramli, who oversaw the construction of a larger kitchen three years ago. His influence is seen in many other areas, including the decor (booths topped with Middle Eastern-style arches) and the music, which ranges from modern American to old rock to classic Arabic.
Shadi Ramli, who was 6 when he moved to the U.S., said he grew up helping with the business and seeing his mother prepare food for the store. "She used to do everything in our oven at the house," he said. "In the morning before school, we'd be folding dough [for spinach pie], then she'd pop it in the oven." The kitchen, in the back of the store along with a steam table, is where customers gravitate to order hummus by the pound, lentil or chicken potato soups, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, and lamb kebab sandwiches. In good weather, there's seating on the patio.
Watching a work in progress Waiting one afternoon recently as her falafel sandwich was prepared, customer Heather Graff said she has enjoyed watching the metamorphosis of the business since the store opened. "I've seen it change from a corner store to a restaurant. The food is really good, spicy and fresh, and it's atmospheric," said Graff, who lives three blocks away. "This is the best place in the neighborhood," said customer Tony Escobedo, who lives in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood. "You should see the line out the door at dinner. Everybody's in here for good, cheap eats." Indeed, maintaining reasonable prices is a priority for Ramli. "I don't do it only for the money," she said. "I like people. I like to cook. If I wanted to work for money, I'd be a millionaire."
Besides the prepared items, the store has a colorful salad bar, on which standard items are accompanied by more unusual selections: roasted brussel sprouts, golden raisins, fried plantains and vegan salad dressings. Sultan's Market also sells typical convenience-store items, from Twix bars to toilet paper, but it stocks ingredients for many ethnic dishes as well: packaged pita bread, tahini, olive oil, miso soup mix. Thinking globally The market is planning to offer an even wider range of ethnic foods in the future. "Right now I'm trying to hunt down a honeydew[-flavored] ice cream that a Korean friend gave to me at his house," said Shadi Ramli.
Expanding the line of ethnic foods, even going beyond those traditionally associated with the Middle East, is in keeping with the store's focus, he said. "I see it as going back home," he said. "The Middle East was a trade hub, so you had all these different kinds of foods and flavors passing through there." He said the exciting part of running Sultan's Market is exploring its potential. "This place is always changing," he said. "We're always adding to it." He has plans in the next few months to open a juice/coffee bar and would like to add T-shirts, incense, body oils and occasionally live music. Although it may seem a grand vision for a convenience store, he said, food and music from a variety of cultures are ways to build bridges. "It's nice to show a little bit of each culture," he said. "That way we aren't so afraid of each other." ----------
Sultan's Market Owners: May Ramli and Shadi Ramli Address: 2057 W. North Ave. Phone number: 773-235-3072 Years in operation: 12 Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays Specialties: Falafel sandwich, $3; bowl of rice and lentils, $3; lamb kebab sandwich, $4.50; piece of spinach pie, $2. Selling point: The Middle Eastern food is "tasty and fresh. You can taste the freshness in it," says May Ramli.