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Yemen-born grocer defies stereotypes

  • Written by Tony Jones

grocer-1When he decided to throw a "come one, come all" block party for his store's regular customers earlier this month, Lotf Alkabash, the owner of C&S Groceries & Market at Lakeview and Brooks Road in Whitehaven, had no intent of making a political statement.

Known as "Mike" to his regular customers, the free barbecue ran from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and was an indication of Alkabash's connection to the community, something many see as sadly missing these days.

Back in April, native Memphian and former mayor of Washington, D.C, Marion Barry, now city councilman for Ward 8, scorched the nation's news imprint with a fiery comment he had made about stores owned by Asian proprietors in his district.

"We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops," Barry was quoted as saying, adding, "They ought to go. I'm going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too."

grocer-2Though he later apologized for the comment, Barry's statement brought to light a common sentiment in the African-American community about rude and nasty immigrant store owners, especially in smaller, poorer communities where human interaction and emotions are less muted.

And then again, there's "Mike," whose customers say he belies such stereotyping. Now 29, Alkabash was six when he came to America from Yemen with his parents, 12 when he began working in their store in Orange Mound, and 18 when began running it. Throngs of customers came through for the block party (July 7), a testament to his everyday-guy way of taking care of business.

"Tan Power!" he jokingly laughs, briefly touching upon the issues of race, racism and politics.

"We're from the mountains, so you can imagine what coming to America was like," he said. "But I grew up in 'The Mound.' To me, people are just people. You're always going to find some people you like and some people you don't like wherever you go."

grocer-3The idea for the block party was a natural for him, he said.

"I'm just trying to make it like everybody else, and I thought it would be a good thing for the customers to have a good day in the store. I couldn't make a living without them."

Carrying a regular crew of four to six, C&S has dominated its corner for nearly 50 years. It's a working person's spot, running on a successful formula of ice-cold beer, beverages, pick-up items and a hot grill selling breakfast and lunch sandwiches. The Tennessee Lottery brings in regular customers and a couple of neighborhood guys come in and pick up a few dollars or a meal cleaning up.

The evening shift is run by Alkabash's recently immigrated 16-year-old cousin, Mohammed Alzandani (known as "Mo Fo Sho"), a tenth grader at Central High School, and 21-year-old Deangelo Blair, now in his second year of studying to become an air traffic controller at Middle Tennessee State University. Alzandani was too shy for an interview, so Blair recalled how they morphed into a team.

"I was a freshman at Melrose when I met Mike," said Blair. "I started out cleaning up, then managing (the Orange Mound store) and came down here when he got this store. They're just regular guys trying to make a living. They're hardworking dudes, we're good."

Recently, a "mystery" surfaced when one of the store's drawing cards was challenged from an unknown source. C&S has a large parking lot, where working guys from the nearby warehouses and truck docks often gather after work for a beer and chatter. Alkabash was informed recently by the city that this decades-old practice would have to cease until he applies for an on-premise beer license.

"I bet you it was the guy with the store across the street," one of the regulars said when told about the change. "He's mad because everybody likes to hang over here."

Vowing that he would get the license, Alkabash said it's just part of the business.

"This is like water to me. It's what I know."

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