Situated in a former law office on the corner of Coursey Boulevard and Stumberg Lane, Olive Trees International Foods began its transformation a few months back.
Hammadeh, a former Southern University electrical engineering student, has made a career in bringing the taste of the Middle East to Baton Rouge. The Coursey store is his forth relocation in 10 years. Hammadeh said he needed a bigger space to do business.
“I was looking for some Halal food (food or drinks permissible under Islamic law) business, and there was not much here at the time,” Hammadeh said. “It was the main reason I started. We established our business in 2004. It was first on Florida (Boulevard), then we moved on Coursey, then Cedar, back to Coursey. This is our last move.”
According to 2014 census data, Baton Rouge’s population has grown 21.8 percent from 366,191 in 1980 to 446,042 in 2014. Among that increase is a 4.9 percent jump in foreign-born residents from 2009-2014. Those numbers equate to more potential business for Hammadeh.
Just around the corner from Hammadeh on Tiger Bend sits A Z International Fine Foods store, owned by Ahmad Badat, which is a bit of the same.
One common theme for these stores, and others, such as La Tiendita and Ideal Market, is providing international flavor to an otherwise underserved demographic.
Take a walk around either of the stores, and you will find an array of products spanning the globe from Mexico City to Mumbai. There are large varieties of rice, spices, and drinks, as well as candy and chocolate.
Badat has worked in the international food business for 33 years and reminisced on his early years in Red Stick with only a handful of other East Asian families. In time, business would slowly, but steadily, increase.
“Everybody likes it,” Badat said. “We have been here 30 years in the business and now we know that people recognize our goat and lamb. All the Asian and African people, they knew about goat and lamb. But here, now they know about it too.”
Badat said many foreigners migrate to Baton Rouge for jobs or schooling at LSU or Southern, but remain in the city for the small-town feel and warm weather.
Hammadeh added that he has witnessed a surprising shift in the demographic of his customers over the years.
“Its very beneficial even for the Americans,” Hammadeh said. “I mean if you go to any Greek, Lebanese restaurants, the majority of customers, 99 percent are American. Even in this location I found more American customers than I used to have in other locations.”
For now, Hammadeh waits for his customer base to continue to grow, while he and Badat continue to provide international flavor to the Capital City.