For the past couple years, South Jersey-based cousins Riyad Mazahra and Sameer Mazahreh have shared a Friday morning routine. One or the other wakes up around 6 a.m. and embarks for North Jersey, making a series of stops to buy goods their food suppliers don’t deliver: hard-to-find produce, an assortment of fresh-baked Middle Eastern breads, and prepared foods like hummus and baklava. Once boxes and crates of the stuff are packed in the car, it’s time to turn around and head back to Cherry Hill to unload it straight away at their nearly two-and-a-half-year-old store, Ammon Mediterranean Market.
As soon as the goods are placed on the shelves or in the aisles — usually after 4 p.m. — they post on Facebook for their loyal following: This week’s haul has arrived; come and get it.
What follows is rush hour in miniature. Customers of all ages trickle in, plucking green apricots, green almonds, cousa squash, California cucumbers, and persil straight out the boxes they came in. (A package of fresh grape leaves was picked clean within half an hour on a recent Friday.) They might also snag some frozen kibbeh, a tub of labneh, a still-warm slab of sesame-speckled barbari bread, and olive oil from Mazahra’s hometown in Jordan.
As Mazahra gave this visiting reporter a tour of the store, an elderly customer delighted at the sight of fresh fava beans. How much were they, she asked him. “The price? For you? Ten dollars a pound,” he answered familiarly. “No, I’m kidding, these are $2.49, same as last week.” He scooped some into a bag for her.
Mazahra, 65, did all kinds of things before he opened Ammon. (“This is my last venture,” he says.) He left Jordan as a teen for studies in Israel and France, then came back home and worked as a travel agent for an airline, touring Europe. He came to the U.S. in 1982. “I just worked a little bit here, a little bit there until I managed to buy a restaurant in Cinnaminson,” he remembers.
Eventually he left the restaurant — Cecilia Pizza — to become a mortgage broker. When the real estate market crashed, he moved back to Jordan and tried his hand at other entrepreneurial endeavors, including the launch of a ketchup factory. For various reasons, the pursuits fizzled out, and Mazahra, his wife, and their five kids moved back to South Jersey three years ago.
That’s when he decided to open this specialty market, something he says South Jersey’s Middle Eastern community has needed since the ‘80s. “We used to travel to Paterson, we used to travel to Philadelphia, we used to go everywhere just to buy bread,” he remembers. Today, he and his cousin welcome customers from as far as Swedesboro and Trenton, and plenty of Philadelphians cross the bridge to come to this strip mall, too.
“I try to cater to many nationalities,” Mazahra says. The lion’s share of his customers identify as Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian, he says. A smaller percentage hail from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, or India. And more Americans have started to come to the store as well, he says.
The cousins try to know their customers by their first names and keep prices moderate. They’ve grown their product list over time by asking people to tell them about the ingredients they can’t find. “We had maybe 10% of this product when we opened,” Mazahra says. “I didn’t know what to order, so I asked people: ‘Make me a list. What do you want to buy?’” He also peppers suppliers with questions about what sells well elsewhere.
That’s how Ammon has come to have such a robust inventory. There’s carob extract, date molasses, tahini and halva, preserved lemons, dried limes, oil-cured olives, sumac, stuffed grape leaves, Moroccan sardines, canned truffles, pickled labneh, sukkary dates, laffa bread, molokhia, Kashkaval cheese, cardamom tea, Turkish coffee, and more.
Mazahra rattles off suggestions for items throughout the store. He holds up a package of jameed, spheres of dried yogurt, and cites the Jordanian dish mansaf. He grabs a seeded roll and describes a widely consumed Middle Eastern breakfast sandwich: a roll stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, oil, and za’atar. He points to a terracotta tagine and gives cooking instructions. “That goes on the stove — not inside — on very, very, very precise, very low heat, and you leave it for like an hour. You keep checking it, you never stir it. When you take it out and it’s ready, it’s like butter,” he says. “Really, the best food you can ever eat is cooked in tagine.”
Recently Mazahra secured permits to expand into the empty space next door to Ammon. He and Mazahreh plan to knock down an adjoining wall, expand their selection, and build out a shop for fresh halal meat (lamb, veal, beef, etc.) and sandwiches (shawarma, shish kebab, and falafel).
“It’s needed in the area,” Mazahra says. “We took a chance initially to open this business. And now, we’ll not take any chance to expand. We know the demand is there, because we are answering the requests of our customers.”
Ammon Mediterranean Market, at 853 Cooper Landing Road, Cherry Hill, is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Delivery is available for orders over $100. Reach them at 856-486-5909 or at facebook.com/ammonmediterraneanmarket.