A World of Flavor

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A World of Flavor

By Jennifer Crain - 06/22/2016
Photography by Kelly Mooney

Over a decade ago, John and Mirna Attar launched a large specialty grocery store in Oregon with little more than good food sense. Today the two locations of World Foods Portland in Portland, Ore., are premier stops for ingredients from across the globe and standout, scratch-made prepared foods that are prepared on site and sold in the deli.

Restaurateurs to Top-tier Grocers
In 2004, John Attar welcomed a couple to Ya Hala, the small Lebanese restaurant he and his wife founded five years earlier. A gregarious host, he struck up a conversation and soon learned that the couple owned a grocery store in town. They mentioned that they were thinking about selling. That evening, John drove over and peeked in the windows.

At A Glance:
Founded: 2004
Owners: John and Mirna Attar
Location: Barbur Boulevard (2004) and downtown, Everett Streeet (2014)
Size: 13,000 square feet (Barbur Boulevard) 10,000 square feet (Everett Street)
Employees: 150
Phone: 503-802-0755
Website: www.worldfoodsportland.com

The Attars had no experience in the grocery business, but he called the next day and told the owners he wanted to buy it.

"You know how sometimes your heart gives you some tingly feelings?" he asks. "I liked it. It's one of those things. I act fast. I like something, I jump on it. "

The 13,000-square-foot store was a neighborhood fixture; back in the 1930s it was a Piggly Wiggly. By the time the Attars purchased it, the store had metamorphosed into a giant convenience store with a wall of 99-cent items and a deli that served chicken fingers and jojos, or fried potato wedges. Sales flagged as the store was overshadowed by glitzier options that emerged along with Portland's booming food scene.

Customers can enjoy a glass of wine or local microbrewed beer while they shop or dine in-store.

An International Concept
To develop vision for the overwhelming space, John walked the aisles daily, talking with customers and mulling over his options.

At the time, few Portland retailers carried international ingredients, and the ones that existed were cuisine-specific, each serving a sliver-thin niche. The size of the Attars' new store dictated something grander. "What came to mind was creating an international market," John says.

John and Mirna settled on a global grocery with an emphasis on Mediterranean foods. Today, two stores carry more than 14,000 ingredients and specialty products from all over the map, including Spain, Hungary, Russia, Slovenia, Italy, India, Israel, Peru, Palestine, Japan, Australia, Morocco and many more. Despite the vast array of choices, the stores have a warm atmosphere, with a feeling of plenty and hospitality.

The store's lineup includes 930 chocolates, 80 pastas, 630 cheeses and 250 teas. A collection of 50 bottled waters is a special point of pride for John. After multiple trips to Hawaii, the couple created a poké bar with eight options. The meat counter is stocked with regionally sourced shellfish alongside unconventional meats such as kangaroo, octopus and python. They also make halal lamb bacon at the restaurant and sell it in the store.

The stores carry more than 1,000 wines and have a bulk foods section with snack foods and raw ingredients, bulk olive oil and vinegar, and an extensive olive bar.

Two cheese cases house local and international cheeses, organized by style and region. Top-selling artisanal cheeses include Parmigiano Reggiano, Délice de Bourgogne, Comté Monts Jura and Arz Labneh.

A Specialized Deli
Mirna, who was named Iron Chef Portland in 2013, spent months translating her restaurant food into dishes that are suited for the deli case. She revised standard recipes to make them amenable to takeout. For example, the moussaka, which she typically serves as a thick stew, has been remade as a whole cooked eggplant for the deli. She also eliminated dishes that don't store well. The result is an array of colorful Lebanese dishes that struck a chord with Portland customers.

"We became our own entity," John says, noting that many of the great delis in Portland, though appealing, are similar to one another. "If you want this kind of food, there's nowhere else to look for it."

Prepared foods are made fresh at each store.

The concept of the shared meal is one the Attars brought with them from their homeland. Beyond the idea of a potluck or family-style meal, each deli dish enhances every other. "With Lebanese food, it goes all together," Mirna explains. "Once you have the tabouli, you need the hummus, the baba ganouj, the grape leaves. So everybody shares the whole spread."

John emigrated from Lebanon in 1979, several years into the Lebanese civil war, and settled in Portland three years later. In 1984, he met Mirna, a fine arts and graphic design student who emigrated from Lebanon as a teen. Her parents founded Nicholas Restaurant, still a fixture in Portland. Their daughters have all started or run their own restaurants in the city.

At World Foods, fresh foods are prepared at each of the two locations. The deli cases are filled with square white bowls holding dishes such as traditional and butternut squash hummus, baba ganouj, herby potato salad and tabouli. Mirna serves the same core items at both delis but adapts some dishes for each location's clientele. The original store carries foods suited to the families who stop to pick up dinner on the way home. At the Everett Street location in the Pearl District, which opened in 2014, lunching professionals snap up more grab-and-go items, such as garbanzo bean salad, macaroni-and-cheese with feta and labneh, and orzo mixed with Mediterranean ingredients. A coffee bar serves locally roasted coffee and customers have the option to sip a glass of beer or wine while they shop. Both stores have in-store dining areas.

Baked goods at both locations include three-cheese tarts, spinach rolls and spanikopita. One of their most popular items is their house-made pita. Both stores offer puffy pita and the downtown store makes a grilled version. They also serve olive oil mixed with fresh thyme and sesame seeds, a mixture they call ‘fresh za'atar' – for dipping and drizzling, a mix of olive oil, fresh thyme and sesame seeds.

Classic, Focused Customer Service
For John, success is measured by customer loyalty. "We are in the business of making people happy," he says. "It's very simple. I don't sit down and analyze what every square inch yields. It doesn't matter. I bring a product in and the best test is a return customer. It's a very old-school mentality."

World Foods serves a wide-ranging demographic, including students, families, local businesses and chefs. John says they gain customer trust through their immediate response times and willingness to accommodate requests, such as ordering one-time special purchases.

World Foods hosts in-store events to help bring customers in the door again and again, including weekly wine tastings and regular vendor demos. "We also do a number of larger events throughout the year including a large anniversary event in February and holiday-themed events in November and December," explains Joyce Attar, the stores' director of operations and John and Mirna's daughter. "We do some really great one-off events. The last one we had was a ‘Meet the Producer' event where we hosted a dozen producers from Spain that showcased their products and engaged with our customer base."

To connect with customers and the community, the retailer is also active on social media, with a slightly different focus on each platform. They post daily product and event announcements on Instagram, specials, tastings and events every few days on Facebook and weekly specials and tastings on Twitter.

Trends, Then and Now
Their merchandising is responsive, allowing them to stay in step with the meteoric rise of health-driven food choices. John remembers when a bottle of olive oil would gather dust on the shelf. Today, they have a selection of 100 olive oils, including one brand that makes its oil in part out of locally grown olives, a novelty in the area.

They also see a rise in purchases for special diets. Mirna notes that it's easy for them to accommodate free-from requests, both in their grocery stock and in the deli. "Our dishes are vegan by nature and gluten-free by nature," she says, noting that in many dishes, nuts are used as a garnish and are easily left out. Since foods are prepared in-house – including roasted, hand-shredded chicken and house-mixed spices – they're able to inform customers about exact ingredients.

All produce is organic, and the store prioritizes organic products in the value-added aisles, as well. In keeping with food trends, they select brands with a good backstory and products that are fair-trade and environmentally sound.

John stresses their commitment to quality. "Because there is an abundance of product in every category, why choose an inferior product? Choose a better product that's going to be better for the environment, better for the people."

A Balancing Act
Today, with two stores and 150 employees, square footage is no longer overwhelming. In fact, they have to be discerning in order to stay true to their commitment to international foods. Joyce Attar, John and Mirna's daughter and the company's operations director, says they shy away from conventional items so they can prioritize specialty products, from home and abroad.

World Foods partners with local vendors, including Jacobsen Salt Co. and Olympia Coffee Roasters, which supplies the coffee for the Everett Street coffee bar.

Though they buy from hundreds of importers, about 15 percent of their products are grown or produced in Oregon. Another 15 percent come from Washington, Idaho and Northern California.

"We try to offset our carbon footprint by buying from local people whenever possible," Joyce says. "Plus, this is our city. And it's a great food city."

Mirna Attar, pictured left, is a talented chef.

The stores learn about some local products from a kitchen incubator located near their downtown store. The relationship helps them connect with small businesses making foods that resonate with the World Foods brand. They consider samples from new local vendors every week.

World Foods is facing obstacles that most independent retailers can relate to. "The challenges we face are attributed to a changing food system. It's challenging for the independent retailer to compete locally with large companies that have greater buying power and can offer products at a more affordable price," says Joyce. "We work with local vendors and producers and try to remain competitive by offering products that are specific to our business."

Growing into the Future
Based on trends and customer feedback, World Foods is expanding its housewares selection. The stores stock a number of items, including rustic wood serving bowls, canning jars, fold-over cork bowls, bamboo cutting boards, tongs and serveware. They plan to add cast-iron pans and add more tabletop and utensils.

Asked about plans for future locations, John smiles at his daughter. "I don't think Joyce will be satisfied with two stores."

She smiles back and says, "I'm open to anything."