Is that a big cheese — or is Charlie Sahadi just happy to see you?

Is that a big cheese — or is Charlie Sahadi just happy to see you?
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Sahadi’s is getting ready to cut the cheese — and serve it up with a smile.

The iconic Middle Eastern market on Atlantic Avenue near Court Street is planning to expand its store, adding a revamped cheese section and other yet-to-be-determined attractions — a move that will undoubtedly make Trader Joe’s, the corporate giant across the street, mold with jealousy.

The chain retailer, known for its low prices, Hawaiian-shirt–clad workers and store-branded products, has sold cheese since it opened in 2008, but it doesn’t offer a full-service counter, where a cheesemonger would offer tastes or make recommendations, for example.

As such, the Sahadi’s cheese counter would be a “customer oriented” bonus, said owner Charlie Sahadi.

“We have six cases of cheese now, but we don’t have a counter where you can cut a block of cheese,” Sahadi explained. “We want to give customers what they want.”

The new space — which is contiguous with the main store — will represent the store’s third storefront on Atlantic Avenue, and is about the size of three studio apartments. The space is currently used to store deliveries and assemble gift baskets.

Sahadi said he wanted to expand years ago, but all plans were put on hold for over a decade after the company bought a warehouse in Sunset Park and did not want to overextend itself.

There’s no definitive plan yet for what precisely will occupy the renovated space, as the work still requires a variance to be granted by the Board of Standards and Appeals, as the plan calls for construction in a rear courtyard, which is at odds with the allowable zoning, along with construction approval from the Buildings Department. Sahadi predicted work would begin in six months.

He said his customers would help him figure out what else to do with the space in addition to the full service cheese counter.

“There will be room to experiment,” he said.

Customers cheered the expansion.

“I’m all for it,” said Sahadi’s shopper and Boerum Hill resident Mary Ann Fitzgerald, who suggested the store set up a café in the new space.

She said she’s shopped at both Trader Joe’s and Sahadi’s, but the latter offers a personal touch.

“That’s a contrast with Trader Joe’s,” Fitzgerald said.

Sahadi refused to recognize “the store across the street” as a competitor, saying the chain offers different merchandise.

“We’ve gained more customers than we’ve lost since they’ve been here,” he said.

Trader Joe’s was less diplomatic.

“We don’t worry too much about competition; there are a lot of people out there trying to sell food,” said spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki. “We compete against ourselves, and our focus is constantly trying to get better at what we do.”

So does Sahadi’s. In 1985, the place expanded to a second storefront on Atlantic Avenue, adding space for prepared foods, coffees and an olive bar. As a result, Sahadi is now able to offer many of the same items as Trader Joe’s — spices, olives, oils, pita, hummus, and cheeses — but also offer 250 varieties of cheese.

“Trader Joe’s has a much more limited selection,” Sahadi pointed out.

And he wasn’t too impressed by Trader Joe’s hummus, either. “Our background is Middle Eastern food. We make ours here on site,” he said.

That’s the way Sahadi has been whipping his chickpeas since 1948, when the third generation store opened on Atlantic Avenue. Sahadi’s great uncle Abraham Sahadi, a Lebanese immigrant, opened the first incarnation of the business in Manhattan in 1895.