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Meet the Middle East

The Mediterranean Bakery has been introducing Richmonders to Middle Eastern culture and food for 20 years.

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In the context of food, "Mediterranean" is a catchall term for Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine. This bakery is more Middle Eastern in flavor, and in this case, its name is a bit of a misnomer. Many of the Middle Eastern items found in the Mediterranean Bakery are eaten every day by people who have never seen the sparkling blue-green waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Abed has lived in the United States since 1967. Though he hasn't owned the bakery since it was opened more than 20 years ago — he purchased it six years ago and moved it to its present location near Regency Mall at 9004 Quioccasin Road nearly three years ago — he has helped to make the bakery what it is today: a place where it's common to find people of any nationality meeting for a quick lunch or drinking coffee at night and debating current events. Like the many cultures it encompasses, the bakery itself has a several features: the deli, where one can find several types of cheeses and hot foods to take out or to bring to the sitting area with enough tables to support the business lunch crowd; and the grocery, which offers items straight from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, some quite common in the regions, but others harder to find.

Since its opening, the bakery has become a melting pot of customers. "While the people who do major shopping there are from the Middle East, many customers from Greek, Indian, Pakistani and Afghani backgrounds shop there as well," says Dr. Emory Bogle, a University of Richmond history professor and specialist in Islam and the Middle East. Bogle attributes Richmond's awareness of Middle Eastern food and culture to the bakery. When it was first opened, "it was truly a bakery," Bogle says. "Virtually no one outside of the Arab community knew anything about pita bread. It became to bread and sweets of the Mediterranean what Nick's Market was to the Greek community and Ellwood Thompson Market was to vegetarians."

Despite its appeal to people of foreign backgrounds, over 50 percent of the bakery's sales are to Americans, many of whom regularly eat lunch there and enjoy the healthy foods available: Breads and sweets are just a sample of the wide array of cuisines offered by the bakery's deli and grocery. Other favorites include sandwiches (shawerma, kebab), fatayer (triangular pastries with fillings such as spinach and feta or meat), dried fruits, nuts, spices and cheeses. "I like any good food, and the food is good here," says Moutaz Abdeen, a regular customer of Palestinian descent. "I don't think you can go wrong with anything you buy here."

The atmosphere and exotic selections available at the bakery have kept customers coming back. Laura Haddad, a Jordanian student at the University of Richmond, says she enjoys the bakery for its cultural flavor. "Because the people who work there are Arab, I feel more connected," Haddad says.

"You know you will find someone who will speak Arabic to you. I think [the bakery] exposes people to foods they are not accustomed to and also helps to break the stereotypes about Arabs that many people have. I know that the owners of the store have had discussions with others about political and cultural issues. They are educators in our community."

Fortunately, the events since Sept. 11 have not negatively affected Abed's family or his business. If anything, he has witnessed some positive change: Some customers he had never seen before bought things from the bakery to show their support.

"We had lots of support from friends," Abed says. "Lots of people I know came to show their support. Some even sent flowers." S



For more information on the Mediterranean Bakery and descriptions of the food it offers, go to http://www.mediterrean-bakeryanddeli.com

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