Arabi Food Store celebrates 40 yearsJan 21st, 2013 | By Jessica Gonzalez | Category: Top Story
Much has changed on the 600 block of Friscoville over the last four decades, but local staple Arabi Food Store has done its best to maintain a small-neighborhood feel while adjusting to the new times.
“We have a lot of neighbors who don’t drive or are elderly, and sometimes people only need a few pieces of bread, a lotto ticket, or just a little bit of mayonnaise, so we’ll sell things like that for them so they don’t have to go down to the supermarket or Dollar Store.”
Debbie Smith, who owns and manages the establishment with her husband Mitchell Smith, say running the restaurant is a “family affair.” The Smith’s took over the family business in 1986, from Debbie’s sister who took the reigns from their father Elliot Gaspard in 1984. But to the Smith’s the term “family” isn’t reserved for blood relatives— their staff members and loyal customers, many of whom frequent the eatery several times a week, are all considered part of the family.
Adjacent to the order window is a mural of smiling faces; a wall filled with framed photos of those ever-loyal regulars whose orders the staff members know by heart and who come in nearly everyday.
“We call it the Wall of Shame,” joked Debbie.
One of the longest-returning “Wall of Shame” customers is Melvin Pichon, who worked with Gaspard at St. Maurice Grocery and has been frequenting the restaurant since the early 1980′s.
“He still comes in everyday around 4:30,” said Smith.
Originally opened as a grocery store by the Papania family, the building was purchased by Elliot Gaspard in 1973. Gaspard had several grocery stores throughout the Greater New Orleans area, including St. Maurice Grocery in the 9th Ward. When he and his wife Sybil moved to the Carolyn Park subdivision in the 1960′s, they decided to open a grocery store a little closer to home.
“When he first bought the store, there were probably five rows of shelves with stock—it was very small. The building was actually wooden but they wouldn’t insure it so Daddy decided to brick it,” explained Debbie. “He started out with a crockpot behind the counter and served hot sausage links and roast beef.”
Smith recalled that after the crockpot dishes garnered popularity with nearby longshoremen and factory workers stopping in for lunch, Gaspard knew that expanding the menu to have hot food was the next logical step for his business. He began to purchase used kitchen equipment from local vendors, and began building a small kitchen.
“Where the kitchen is now actually used to be a storage room and broom closet,” said Smith.
Eventually, Gaspard and his employees perfected their famous Muffaletta recipe.
“It was a lot of trial and error between him and a few of his employees on the recipe, but he finally got it just right, and that’s the way it is today,” she explained.
In addition to the famous Muffaletta and Roast Beef, the menu grew to features hot breakfast items, salads, wraps, po-boys, full dinner entrees, salads and more. The eatery also caters.
Family tradition continues
Since 1986, Mitchell and Debbie have worked incredibly hard to preserve the good things of the past while keeping the restaurant moving forward. The menu has been tweaked quite a bit over the years, and much has been added, Debbie says.
They are still as hands-on with the restaurant as they were in the early years. Nearly every morning you can see Debbie with her staffers behind the counter helping answer phones, hopping on the register, or greeting customers and Mitchell in the kitchen with an apron helping fulfill orders or loading stock in.
And that tradition is likely to continue, as Debbie’s cousin, Amanda Connelly, is very involved in the restaurant and works behind the counter.
“She’s the third generation to work here,” said Debbie.
All in all, there are some things about Arabi Food Store, Debbie says, that will never change: quality food, big portions and great service in a casual, neighborhood setting.
“We’re nothing fancy,” she said after walking into the kitchen to check on an order. “But I think that’s what’s great about it.”
Arabi Food Store celebrated it’s 40th birthday on January 3, and to celebrate, the neighborhood staple will hold a Customer Appreciation Day on January 30 from 2 to 6 p.m. featuring food, beverages and entertainment. The restaurant is located at 650 Friscoville Ave.