TEMPLE TERRACE — The question — asked during a lull in customers filling bags with fancy chocolates, requesting a taste of thick, steaming Turkish coffee and selecting from assorted baklavas — did not appear to insult Loai Kader.
Actually, it made him smile.
His fledgling shop, called Roasted! and tucked in a strip mall near a Mexican restaurant and a health food market, sells tastes of the Middle East in sweets, candies, nuts, seeds and spices. Inside, the store is strikingly bright, sleek and modern, something that might pop up in a big city instead of a sleepy suburb of Tampa.
So here’s the inquiry: Is this place a franchise?
“That question, I love it so much,” said Kader, 29, and no, it’s not. “Hopefully when you ask me in five years, I’ll say yes.”
Because it was a roll of the dice, opening in December in the coronavirus crisis even as stores as well-known as Godiva were shutting down across the country.
Kader was especially mindful of the strong Middle Eastern community around the sprawling University of South Florida campus just down Fowler Avenue from his space at 11301 N 56th St. So he worked to build a social media buzz about the place weeks before actually opening his doors.
“It was very scary, middle of the pandemic … are you going to hit? Are you going to miss?” he said. “But you’ve got to take a chance.”
Inside the store is a lively mix of big glass jars filled with colorful spices — turmeric, hot curry. There’s an array of snacks from chili-lemon peanuts to watermelon and pumpkin seeds. Behind glass sits a variety of sweets including Turkish Delight in long, fat rolls, a confection that’s cut sushi-style and sold by weight.
Customers fill bags from bins of Halal gummy candies made with no pork products. There are pickles called fakoos, sugar chickpeas, candies shaped like tiny slices of pizza. There’s chocolate from Jordan, nougats from Syria, nuts from California roasted in Plant City. Kader moves busily through the store, talking with customers in English, Arabic and a mash-up of both.
“We thought it would slowly grow,” he said. “But it’s been crazy.”
“Beautiful,” said customer Ahmad al Hamed as he shopped with his father on a recent afternoon. Originally from Jerusalem, he found the store by word of mouth and keeps coming back for the chocolates and nuts. How often?
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“When I run out of nuts,” he said. “That’s like once a week.”
Jessica Purvis was drawn in by the big Roasted! sign outside. “It’s so cute,” she said. She opened her bakery box to show her selections: “This is a walnut baklava, a pistachio baklava and a hazelnut baklava,” she said. “I hope it’s good.” Her grandfather loved the sticky phyllo pastries, she said.
The customer mix has surprised Kader.
“We have the Middle Easterners coming in and saying, ‘It reminds me of home, the colors and smells and tastes,’” he said. He thought they would be his whole clientele, but about half the customers have been the unfamiliar and intrigued.
“It’s crazy about our demographic,” he said. “But it’s awesome.”
Born in Pensacola to a Palestinian family, Kader was a business-minded kid who mowed lawns to make money. He worked at a corner convenience store owned by family after high school and also in his father’s countertop business. He saved enough to buy that convenience store and later sold it to start his own venture.
A Middle Eastern grocery, he was thinking, but not the old-school kind with tight aisles and crowded shelves.
But the long, roughly 4,000-square-foot space available in a Temple Terrace plaza owned by his uncle — Kader gets a small “nephew discount” on rent — didn’t seem big enough for a market. So he regrouped, making the nut section larger and focusing on the sweets.
Since then, he’s hired four USF students to work part-time.
In his travels, he’s seen stores like this in Jordan and Dubai, only more traditional looking. For his, he wanted the tastes to be traditional “but with the American modern touch,” he said.
He’s married to Deanna, a teacher, and their son Mikal, 3 1/2, loves to come in for gummies and chocolate, making Kader “the coolest dad ever in his eyes,” he said.
Recently when a woman called from Alaska to place an order, he couldn’t believe it — how did she find the place? She said she heard about it from a friend who lives here.
“That somebody’s eating this in Alaska makes me happy,” he said.