Phoenicia Mediterranean Food Hall is celebrating 10th years in business at the heart of Kentish Town. Having taken over vacant kitchen and garden emporium Chattlemania, they expanded into the defunct Blockbuster Video next door in 2006. Owner Ghassan took a gamble on opening such a large place, but grew cautiously without taking loans, instead following his dad’s mantra from the family business back in Lebanon: “if you can’t buy it, don’t buy it.” He chose Kentish Town as the location to open his dream food halls, having commuted through the area for years – plotting – to a job he had no passion for. Now the business, with its truly vast range of speciality products, is a much-loved local resource. Proof that, at least here, the death of the High Street has been much exaggerated.
When were you happiest?
Right now. The shop is established and business is running smoothly so I can relax. It certainly wasn’t like that in the early years.
What is your greatest life achievement?
The shop, of course. I didn’t know much about Kentish Town before we opened here, but I knew there were a lot of studios here and media people. My thinking was that I needed customers who have travelled well to appreciate what I’m going to do. That thought has proved to be true.
Where would you like to live?
Patshull or Bartholomew Roads. Nice and close too.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Keep walking. There is no point in stopping.
What is your earliest Kentish Town memory?
Driving through twice a day, using the back roads to escape the traffic. I always had in my mind the plan to own a mini-market, a place that I would enjoy going to. At that time there were only really Panzer’s in St John’s Wood and Shepherd in Primrose Hill. I wanted to do a completely different thing and then one day I saw the ‘for sale’ sign here.
What makes you unhappy?
Dishonesty. It really makes me go berserk because I think humans are intelligent enough to be able to tell the truth regardless of anything. We’re not in the Stone Age, especially in this country, so no one is going to cut your head off. There is no need to deceive.
Where do you hang out?
I used to be found in LA Fitness all the time, but they deceived me! I bought a membership on the understanding I could use a club near my home, which I couldn’t, so that was the end of that. I also hang out in shops for a chat with the owners, Morgan’s, Kall Kwik, Itta, Harry – it’s very important to keep in touch with everyone on the high street.
What’s your best local experience? Worst?
The best is meeting so many open minded people. There are a lot here. The worst is the frustrating obstacles to business. As soon as you see things moving up, the landloards, estate agents and the Council jump in. At the start, our rent was under £40,000 for the two shops, now we pay over £140,000. Then we pay £60,000 in Council Tax but we don’t get much for that, we even have to pay for our rubbish collection on top. If it wasn’t so high, we could have cheaper prices for our customers, but it’s like this all over the country.
Tell us a secret.
A few businesses in the high street have been sold to new owners. I know of two of them, confidentially, and if the paperwork goes fine they will be changing very soon. One of them is really not expected and will change to a totally different thing. The other will modernise…
What is your favourite dish and why?
I love aubergine. My favourite way is to do it lasagne style, using the aubergine instead of the sheets of pasta. The cheese, the bolognaise, the Béchamel sauce too, all on one plate? Woah!
What is your favourite smell?
Coffee roasting. I’d love to have space to roast our own beans here in the shop. One guy in Hornsey high street does it and you can smell it right down the road.
Describe yourself as an animal.
Bear. The picture I use for myself on my phone is a bear. Obviously my physical appearance is quite big but I’ve always felt like one.
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