Phoenicia Specialty Foods
By Christina Autry
Touring through Phoenicia transports you abroad just as much as it reaffirms that you are in Houston, a city that brings a world of culture under one roof. Each time I visit the Westheimer store, it is always bustling with activity. Many languages surround you as you pace the aisles, marveling at the fact that there are so many different types of olive oil, spices, yogurt... You may see women in hijabs pushing carts of tonight’s dinner and towing children, families finding the particular ingredient they need for traditional meals, bread fanatics waiting for the freshest, country-specific bread to come down the conveyer belt, wine connoisseurs perusing bottles from Armenia, Uruguay, Lebanon, Turkey, and more, people of all ages at the sweets counter requesting Baklava and other treats. Next door, Arpi’s Deli is its own experience, as customers from all parts of the community jump into the serving line for shawarma, small bowls of tasty sides, and maybe some baklava and ice cream. Chances are you’ll be lucky enough to see Arpi herself behind the counter managing the 35-year old operation. At the downtown store, laughter and conversation, Rockets or Astros fans surround you as you enter near the MKT Bar, and wind your way through the smaller yet plentifully stocked store. You, and those around you, have come to Phoenicia looking for something, tangible or intangible, that could not be found elsewhere.
“Food runs in the blood of my family," states Haig Tcholakian. With a degree in Finance and Energy Trading from the University of Texas, Haig worked in corporate finance before returning to Houston to join his parents’ family business. He and his siblings, alongside their parents are integral to Phoenicia's identity and day-to-day functioning. Haig purchases inventory, manages the 7-year old downtown store and its finances, and helps handles marketing for Phoenicia. He kindly took time from his busy schedule to sit down with me at the downtown location for a conversation about this Houston institution. For those who have yet to visit, Phoenicia is a must-do grocery shopping experience.
Store manager and son of founders Zohrab and Arpi Tcholakian.
The story of Phoenicia Specialty Foods of Houston, founded 35 years ago by Haig’s parents Zohrab and Arpi, is the story of this remarkable family from Lebanon and how they have brought a whole world of food to Houston. Like the ancient Phoenicians who lived in what we now call Lebanon, and were famous for their shipping and trade around the Mediterranean, Phoenicia Specialty Foods brings together “an array of products that no one else has under one roof,” as Haig explains.
The Tcholakians called Lebanon home prior to arriving in the United States in the 1970’s. They enjoyed a community-centered life in Beirut; neighbors shared food and life with one another in peaceful times. His father, Zohrab, worked as an architect and engineer, while his mother, Arpi, worked for a research laboratory. Haig’s grandfather operated a small corner store, providing fresh products to their Armenian-Lebanese community. Haig points out that, even then, Arpi was a great cook. Yet once the Lebanese Civil War broke out and intensified, it became imperative for the Tcholakians to leave Lebanon and their tight-knit Armenian community.
The first Tcholakians to bring Armenian-Lebanese cuisine to the United States were Zohrab’s brother Krikor and his wife Rose. They immigrated to the Los Angeles area in the 1970’s and own two thriving Lebanese restaurants called Carousel; one in the Little Armenia area of Los Angeles called Glendale, and the other one in West Hollywood Boulevard. When Zohrab and Arpi left Lebanon, they first moved to Los Angeles to be near joined Krikor and Rose in California before trying their luck at returning home to Beirut. Sadly, however, the war raged on, and required them to travel once again to the United States; permanently this time. Arpi’s cousin who lived in Houston spoke highly of the city, due to our strong economy and ease of making a living. Luckily for us, Arpi and Zohrab decided to settle here.
Once here, the Tcholakians were able to connect with local Armenians in Houston. Haig describes the Armenian community in the United States as being relatively small, with many connections between friends and relatives. The Tcholakians were some of the first members of Houston’s only Armenian Church, St. Kevork, in West Houston. Haig remembers his parents participating with his church in the Houston International Festival, grilling kebabs and cooking Armenian dishes to raise money for the church’s construction, and to allow Armenian culture to live on in Houston.
The Emergence of Phoenicia
In 1983, the time seemed right for Zohrab to leave his draftsman job in the oil industry and start a small Armenian-Lebanese restaurant on Westheimer. Droubi’s and Abdallah’s, which both still provide Lebanese baked goods and foods, also opened in ’79 and ’76 respectively. Despite Houston being the extremely diverse city that it is today, our culinary horizons were still being expanded in the 70’s and 80’s. Houstonians were not yet familiar with foods such as shawarma, hummus, or foreign spices. Arpi put to good use the recipes which had been passed down through their family, as she helped introduce Houston to Lebanese cuisine at Arpi’s Deli. To this day, she continues to manage the kitchen seven days a week. Haig describes his mother as a “powerhouse,” as she has operated the restaurant since the beginning, and gives it the special touches it that make it unique.
Serving up delicious sides to go with your shawarma!
It didn’t take long before this shawarma shop with a few shelves of Mediterranean products expanded past its capacity and moved to the opposite side of Westheimer, where the largest of the two Phoenicia stores remains today. Now, the aisles in the Westheimer store tower above you as you gaze at the endless variety of flavor at your fingertips. Haig attributes their success to his driven, entrepreneurial father and mother. He describes his father as a “driving force, who loves challenging himself to come up with new business ideas, make new products, make customers happy by listening and being observant to what they want, and knows when there is a need for expansion.” The downtown store opened in 2011, and sells roughly the same products that can be found in the Westheimer location, though each location has its added flairs to suit its particular neighborhood. When Phoenicia opened downtown, there had not been a grocery store in the area for 40 years. The Tcholakians jumped right into the gap, determined to succeed, and they have.
Zohrab's homemade tea blend
It's so good, they had to sell it in their stores!
Filling an International Niche in Houston
Phoenicia has become a hub for Mediterranean items that cannot be found anywhere else in Houston. Immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and beyond would come to Zohrab and Arpi when the store was still small, requesting specialty products that they missed from their home countries. Because of their flexibility and openness to requests, they ended up offering a huge range of foreign products. Phoenicia filled this niche, and evolved as Houston evolved. Haig knows that even some dedicated customers will drive in from Louisiana and other cities around Texas to stock up on Phoenicia products. Now, if you walk into Phoenicia looking for olive oil, you can have your pick of 50 kinds of olive oil from 20 different countries, such as Cyprus, Greece, Crete, Spain, Italy, Argentina, and the Middle East. Buying large quantities of foods from suppliers, packaging and selling them for less than many competitors allows Phoenicia to keep their prices low despite selling specialty products. The first time I went to Phoenicia, I was amused by the 40 pound tubs of tahini, (which could be used in about 640 servings of hummus) or 33 pound cans of feta at the Westheimer store. Although I’m sure I could use 33 pounds of feta, the larger quantities are clearly intended for purchase by restaurants and other grocery stores around town, and even in neighboring states.
"A Museum of Food"
Each Phoenicia store is its own experience, and you have to visit both to see how the Tcholakians have tailored and customized them over the years to best serve the community. When I asked Haig what he might say to someone who hasn’t tried Phoenicia yet, or might be hesitant to venture out, he responded by saying that most food from around the world has a relationship to something familiar here in the United States. “If you eat a pastry from Lebanon or a stew from Iran, it has a relationship (looks, taste) to a familiar food. Once people see that, and eat a meal, they realize it’s really good.” Once you step into Phoenicia, Haig describes it as “an opportunity to be exposed to many different products – it’s almost like you’re traveling. It’s an experience, an education, a ‘museum of food,’ that no matter if you’re buying one thing, a whole cartful, or just looking around, it’s worth it.”
An Easy, Delicious Mediterranean Recipe
Only using ingredients I picked up at Phoenicia!
When I asked him for a recommendation for a dish that would be easily made no matter the chef's skill level, Haig suggested Manaeesh (or pronounced, Manakish). Manaeesh can be thought of as an Arabic personal-sized pizza. As with Italian/American pizza, there is no "official" recipe, just traditional ingredients! So you really can't go wrong (according to me). Here is what we did, and it came out SUPER tasty!
Armenian hand-pulled bread (comes bagged)
Ackawi cheese, shredded from the block
Onion, finely diced
Cilantro (our own addition)
1. Mix together the zaatar seasoning with olive oil and onions (the quantity is up to you)
2. Cut the Armenian bread in half (like you're making 2 hamburger buns), then into smaller pieces
3. Spread the olive oil mix over the bread
4. Shred the Ackawi cheese and cover the bread with it
5. Arrange tomato slices on cheese
6. Bake until the cheese has melted, or about 20 minutes
7. Broil for a couple minutes to make it crispy
8. Serve with cilantro and extra zaatar seasoning sprinkled on top