Carmel Grocery: An Oasis of Armenian and Middle Eastern Food in Queens



 

Carmel grocery

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

QUEENS, N.Y. — Sooner or later every Armenian gets a yearning for Armenian foods that can more easily be found at a specialty grocery. In the borough of Queens in New York City, there are only a handful of such stores. One of these is Carmel Grocery on 108th Street in Forest Hills. It is a small store that always is full of customers seeking Middle Eastern, Armenian, Russian and Balkan foods and good coffee.

 

Carmel is owned by Steve Dumanian, who was born near Bucharest, Romania. His grandparents emigrated from Western Turkey and both parents were born in Romania. His mother’s family was in the coffee business for three generations. Relatives roasted their own coffee back in the Ottoman Empire and were forced to escape to Romania as a result of the Armenian Genocide. When the Communists came into power there, they continued but eventually lost the business and had to become employees in their own stores, which were by then taken over by the government.

 

Dumanian recalled that when he was growing up, his parents would give him an incentive to work in the store instead of playing in the street. He said, “That’s where I learned to roast coffee. I enjoyed being there with my family.”

 

The Dumanians left Romania in 1970, and came to the US via Lebanon, with the assistance of the Armenian National Committee for Homeless Armenians (ANCHA), in 1971. They came straight to New York. Steve Dumanian was 15 or so. His mother really wanted to own a store, and eventually the family was in a position to buy a business. In 1983, the Dumanians found Carmel (named after a mountain in Israel), owned by two Jewish men. First, they thought of transforming it into a purely Armenian store with a new name, but they tried running it for six months with Jewish products and it worked. It took about two years for it to become successful. Steve said, “I started with my mother and father, the three of us. We were picking up merchandise with a private car. Then my sister and my wife started helping. As business got better both left their jobs. My sister was a biologist and my wife a computer analyst.”

 

The whole family worked long hours together for 11 years, until first his sister passed away, and then, six months later, his father. Dumanian began to hire other people, and his mother retired from working. Today, 13 people work in Carmel, of whom all but two are fulltime employees. All sorts of languages are spoken by the staff — Armenian, Hebrew, Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish — along with English, of course.

 

While there are a good number of Armenian customers, and even some Turkish ones, the majority, at least 50 to 60 percent, are Israeli Jews. Few American Jews come because they don’t eat the same food. Carmel advertises in Jewish papers, in local synagogues and in the local Armenian churches. Dumanian said they help the Armenian churches and some organizations, giving them a discount for their events, and in turn, they also benefit from publicity. The same is true for helping various Jewish organizations. The Dumanians donated directly to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, and also raised money from their customers for the victims.

 

Muraba is imported from Armenia via Los Angeles, as well as some jarred vegetables. Carmel carries a large variety of cheeses, including Armenian string cheese and feta. Pastirma, lahmajun, sujuk and paklava are sold. The börek is fresh — an Armenian man brings them cooked in the morning, along with some frozen, which they bake throughout the day.

 

Dumanian stressed that freshness and quality are extremely important for the grocery. They make three types of babaghanush as well as hummus from scratch. Every week 20 to 25 cases of eggplants are used for cooking. Tahini and tabouleh are made in-house, along with jajik (cucumber salad with yogurt) and various hot sauces. Various types of smoked fish, like mackerel or lox, are made especially for Carmel, and pickled fish is also available. Various types of breads like pita, zaatar and lavash, different kinds of olives and an array of spices are available.

 

Shipments of dried nuts and fruits are received every three to four days, and roasting is done every three days. Only higher grades of coffee are bought, compared to larger houses that buy lesser grades. For only seven to eight cents on the pound, the difference in the taste is worth it. It is a better grade than Starbucks, says Dumanian. Furthermore, Carmel has an impressive-looking coffee grinder that costs nearly $4,000. The blades, $500 a set, have to be changed every few months. The special machine can make a finer quality “Armenian” or “Turkish” coffee.

 

Business is still growing, largely through word of mouth. In addition to local customers, people come from Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Carmel also ships non-perishable items like coffee or canned goods all over the US.