Noe Valley Voice March 2010

Owner Jamil (James) Abu-nie (right) attributes Shufat Market’s 38-year success to the dedication and hard work of the family, including (from left) his brother Kamal (Mike) Omar, son Mahmoud Abu-nie, niece Tina Omar, and nephew Ahmad Omar.
Photo by Pamela Gerard

Shufat Market--the Granddaddy of Mom and Pop Stores

By Tim Innes

They call stores like Shufat Market "mom and pop" groceries, but the name doesn't tell half the story.

"Mom and pop, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters" would be a more apt description of the shop at 3807 24th Street near Church Street.

Three generations have tended the store since its opening 38 years ago, making it one of the oldest family businesses in Noe Valley.

"We've succeeded because of everyone working together," says owner Jamil (James) Abu-nie, the oldest son of store founder Mouhammed Omar. "Everyone is dedicated to a common purpose."

That dedication translates into long hours. The store is open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. It helps that James lives just around the corner on Church, while his brother, Kamal (Mike) Omar, has an apartment above the store.

Another key to Shufat's success has been its ability to change with the times, James says, as Noe Valley's gentrification over the past two decades has created demand for organic fruits and vegetables, as well as i mported chocolate and superpremium ice cream. "We carry a much greater variety of goods than we did when I started working here [in 1975]."

So how did Shufat evolve?

Mouhammed Omar's path to San Francisco was circuitous. Leaving his family's grocery business in Palestine in 1955, he emigrated first to Brazil and then to Nicaragua, where he owned a dry goods business. After the devastating Managua earthquake in 1972, he came to San Francisco and bought the store on 24th Street from the Louie family. He named it after Shufat (sometimes spelled Shuafat), his hometown on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

One by one, Omar's wife, four sons, and daughter followed him to San Francisco. James took a detour along the way, earning a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Omar retired from the store in 1987 and died in 1992. His wife, Tamam Khalil, passed away in 1997.

Today, just two of Omar's sons--James Abu-nie (who took his mother's surname) and Mike Omar--are active in t he business. A third, Jamal Omar, owns Pay n Save Grocery on Guerrero Street. The fourth, Kamel, returned to the West Bank. Their sister, Jamila, who is not involved in the business, still lives in Noe Valley. All told, about 30 members of the clan--all American citizens--live here.

Helping at the store are James' sons, Omar and Mahmoud. Mike's daughter, Tamam (Tina), and son, Ahmad, staff the deli counter.

Tina Omar, a 32-year-old fashion designer, comes in three days a week. "We volunteer our time," she says. "It's part of our culture to help out in the family business."

Ahmad Omar, 24, started helping at the store when he was 11. "I'd come in after school and sweep up," he says.

Ahmad, who aspires to become a firefighter, spends his free time preparing for the Fire Department's qualification exam and volunteering at Station No. 19 on Ocean Avenue.

Until her death early last year, James' wife, E'nam Fatima Abu-nie, also worked at the store.

Mike says his father first went to New York, but found it overwhelming and left after two weeks; he found San Francisco more congenial. Mouhammed Omar's fluency in Spanish after many years in Central America helped him feel at home here, Mike says.

Though Mike and James often converse with each other in Arabic, they speak English and Spanish with equal facility. One recent afternoon, Mike simultaneously answered a reporter's questions in English, redeemed a customer's lottery ticket in Spanish, and spoke to daughter Tina about a deli order in Arabic.

The store is busy throughout the day, with spikes at noon and early evening, when lines form at the deli counter. Many customers are regulars, greeting the shopkeepers by name and swapping stories about family, jobs, and weekend activities.

The market, which began life in 1907 as Hoffman Bros. grocery store and butcher shop, is well stocked without seeming crowded. Drinks, including many moderately priced wines, occupy the most space, but shoppers are also greeted by displays of produce, juices, homemade coo kies and brownies, and specialty teas and coffees. Refrigerator cases offer eggs, milk, and cheese, while shelves are laden with boxes of cereal and crackers, cans of soup and chili, and jars of salsa and barbecue sauce.

The store also offers a variety of convenience items, from detergents to diapers, fuses to flashlights, and condoms to aspirin. Lottery tickets and phone cards are also popular, says James.

In reviews of Shufat on the website, customers heap praise on the family, as well as their wares.

"[They] are the nicest people. Warm, genuine, appreciative, friendly. It's why I shop there," says one reviewer.

"Love this place!'' writes another. "The sandwiches are so delicious because they are not simply made, they are crafted. The family that owns the place are...the sweetest people ever."

Adds a third: "Simply put, this place is like Cheers [the bar made famous in the television series] all wrapped up in a freaking corner store. And yep, you're going to feel like Norm."

Wit h customers like these, it's no wonder that James, 64, and Mike, 62, are in no hurry to hand the business over to the next generation.

"Retire?" asks Mike. "What would I do? Being busy keeps you young."

Though the brothers return to the West Bank every year or two to visit family, their hearts are in Noe Valley.

"I love this neighborhood," says Mike. "It has changed a lot over the last 35 years, mostly for the better. I've watched kids grow up and then come back with their kids. It's a great place."