Balady Foods is the tiny halal market that punches way above its weight.
In an area that’s not lacking in groceries—even of the halal variety—its reputation and variety is unmatched in the neighborhood, if not the borough. The space is bursting with products from all over the Arab world: Palestinian olives, handpainted plateware, Lebanese cheese. So it’s no wonder that after 12 years in business, this busy market is now taking over the space next door.
The Masoud brothers—Essa, Mosa, and Abraham—are all native sons of Bay Ridge, and they opened the store in 2003 after having owned a C-Town in Bed-Stuy. “Because of our practicing faith as Muslims, we wanted to steer away from selling beer, wine, and pork” Essa explained to me. “We see this as a halal business.”
Each time I’m in Balady (7128 Fifth Avenue), the place is bustling with at least 15-20 people—and this is in a space that’s not much larger than your average deli/grocery. People in the Arab community talk about the store like it’s a landmark, using it as a meeting place or planning their days around various Balady trips. So it surprised me when Essa said that their business didn’t succeed right away.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Essa admitted, saying that at the time there was a stigma to halal groceries. “People thought of halal markets as underground, garbage markets that overcharged or had expired food.”
Essa recalled that when he was a kid, his mother would regularly send him to the market, which was located in the same storefront where Balady is now located, to pick up food for a meal she was cooking. Once he found maggots in the semolina flour and notified the owner, who seemed to pay it no mind. I have a feeling that experience might have traumatized Essa, because Balady is immaculate. As I talked with him, he walked throughout the aisles, straightening items on the shelf, and picking up a stray olive from the floor.
“We didn’t do it different,” he said. “We just did it right.”
Despite the cramped space—which will be remedied when the store nearly doubles its size in August—shopping there is totally pleasant. You can smell the spices from outside, there’s usually soft Arabic music or Quranic recitation playing in the background, and the store is bursting with color. There’s an olive station with 15 different varieties, a full-service halal butcher, and a spice wall that would put any grocery store five times Balady’s size to shame. Newbies to Middle Eastern food should not despair: if you need some advice on how to use an item, or are completely overwhelmed by the 20 types of white cheeses, ask any of the friendly employees. Get some fresh coffee beans and add some cardamom for an added kick, while you’re at it. They also have totally affordable, high-quality olive oil by the gallon.
The word “balady” (بلدي) is a hard word to translate from Arabic, but it roughly means, in this case, food from the homeland. And when you go, you can’t help but feel like there’s nostalgia in the air. The Masouds, Palestinian-Americans born and raised in Bay Ridge, clearly take pride both in their heritage and in their local community. Each Ramadan, they organize an annual iftar (the meal that breaks the daily fasts) right on the sidewalk in front of the store. It’s a highly anticipated event, and it gets a huge turnout. On that night—and, quite frankly, every afternoon—it’s hard to imagine the neighborhood without this gem.
Balady’s expansion is slated to finish in August.
Balady Foods is open every day from 9am to 10pm.