Honoring Diversity

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It has been eighteen months since I left my job with Whole Foods Market. I don’t miss the place. But I do miss the people.

What I loved most about WFM* was its grass-roots approach to marketing. Each store had a local feel, catering to the immediate community it served. As everyone knows, WFM encouraged sampling. Part of my job was to plan and create sampling events revolving around holidays and seasons. The most popular event at “my” store by far was the celebration of world cuisines. It was as popular with team members as it was with customers.

Celebrating our team members’ diversity was important. Keeping us happy was one of the company’s core values (WFM is not unionized). It was a tremendous amount of work, but believe it or not, not a huge monetary investment. In return we had happy team members, who came together, taking pride in their own cuisines and cheering each other on. They were on the clock, they were to use ingredients from the store and although it was work, it was out of the daily routine. Instead of being robots cranking the gears of a money making machine, they were human, talented, and creative individuals sharing their own food with a community of world citizens they worked with and customers they served.

My job was to coordinate, plan and promote, armed with a spreadsheet that included names and countries of origin, the list of dishes to be prepared, the number of tables needed. The recipes had to be written, the ingredients had to be shopped and paid for by the marketing budget which I controlled. Signage, posters and name badges needed to be designed, printed and distributed.

The exchange that went on between us was invaluable. We learned so much from one another. Sharing our traditions, our family history and status, our life’s journeys. I don’t believe we ever felt happier and more connected. Due to its popularity, the event had to be divided into two shifts with six to seven stations each, while our Saturday business had to go on as usual. My team had to roll out the stations, set up tables with signage, flowers and flags, serving utensils and sample cups and then clean up and reorganize half-way through the day for the next shift.

Over the years we sampled Fantu’s Ethiopian Dorowat, Paul’s Scotch Broth and Elizabeth’s  “Queen’s Soup” from the Netherlands. Miss Molly made Stew Peas from Jamaica, Brian made spicy Stewed Chicken from Trinidad and Elaine served a Pineapple Ginger-ade for cooling relief. Moses sampled Chapati from Tanzania, Yacine made Fataya (fish or meat pies) from Senegal and Gerard couldn’t have taken more pride in serving  his Lazy Boy Casserole or the best North Carolina BBQ pulled Pork you’d ever tasted.

From El Salvador we had Freddy, Edith, Jose and Wilmer make, stuffed Chayote Squash, fried Plantains and Yucca and Pastelitos de Pina. From Poland, Tom served Bigos. Isabelle, from Burkina-Faso, fried Black Eyed Pea Puffs in front of customers, while dressed to the nines in her beautiful blue kaftan and turban. Fatim and Solange served Peanut Butter Soup from the Ivory Coast and Miss Francis spooned out her richest American Bread Pudding to rival Donovan’s Sweet Potato Pudding from Jamaica. Stella made a fabulous Romanian salad, Kay, a celebration rice from India. From the Middle-East we alternated representation between Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. But the one country that always took the prize was Morocco. Year after year, Khalid went all out with a Tagine of a whole fish, a Couscous with lamb and vegetables and a variety of salads. He alone would require two tables to accommodate his sweeping spread.

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Each year’s event was met with enthusiasm and growing excitement. Preparations became easier and entries more competitive. We celebrated good food, healthy food and world cuisines. But most of all we relished our diversity and our ability to have fun together, to work together and appreciate one another. Our workplace was a microcosm of what makes this country so great. It breaks my heart to witness the political change today that is unfolding before our eyes.

I am grateful for the meaningful exchange between fellow team members that touched our lives for a short while. We shared our fears and joys, our stories of hardship and success, and bonded by sharing our own healing home-cooked food.


On a side note WFM has changed as well: as competition grew, the company changed its marketing strategy, cut labor and steered its marketing dollars in a different direction. And with that, our jobs and events were the babies thrown out with the bathwater.


*WFM opened in DC in 1996 as Bread & Circus and a couple of years later the company bought up Fresh Fields and adopted the name for all the Mid-Atlantic stores. It was not until 2003 that WFM unified all the natural food chains it had acquired under the Whole Foods Market brand.

How It All Began

“You have a master’s in design and you work for a grocers?” my mother shrieked in disbelief. Deprived of a college education, she lived vicariously through her children. I was neither the doctor, the engineer nor the lawyer she would have liked to see and I found myself responsible for her shame and humiliation. “anyway, either way (designer/artist or grocer) you’ll die poor”! she said. Thanks Ma, for the vote of confidence !

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“To Market To Market”:  18″ x 14″, acrylic on canvas. © Fadia Jawdat, painted when I first began working in the grocery store.

I worked in design studios for years, until late-night production and demanding clients conflicted with child rearing. As a graphic designer, no salary was hefty enough to pay a caregiver or baby-sitter.  After three to four years at home, two babies and a zillion diaper changes later, I had to get out. A job at a small local grocery store allowed me a flexible schedule. I came home for snack, homework (that came a little later), dinner, bath and bedtime stories. I sometimes worked weekends while my husband (also a graphic designer) took over parental duties. The joy of watching my girls change and grow was more rewarding than the career path I chose initially. Furthermore, I purchased all my groceries at a discount and I was often offered delicious samples to take home for my family.

Learning the retail business was new and different—I am all about new and different. I quickly became part of the grocery crowd. Product sourcing, trade-show ordering, purchasing and merchandising fascinated me. It came naturally: armed with a trained eye and a discerning palate, I developed a knack for predicting consumer and market trends. I read everything on the subject of food. I witnessed, firsthand, the growing industry of gourmet and natural products. My love for food was slowly becoming an obsession and materializing into the making of a career. It was also then that I started writing a newsletter for the store (the grandparent to this blog?), complete with stories, recipes and illustrations. (BTW this was pre-internet and SM days).

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Illustrations by Barry Moyer, Design by Rakan Jawdat and written by yours truly: Summer, Fall and Holiday issues, of a grocery store newsletter, many years ago.

After the small gourmet grocers, I joined the ranks of Whole Foods Market. I worked for the very first WFM store in the mid-Atlantic region. At the time, it opened under the name of Bread & Circus, the name of a North-East chain that WFM had purchased. WFM was highly suspect. Rumors ran wild: The company was a cult, the store was built on an ancient sight of a native American burial ground. The store seemed jinxed in its first few years. It would be in poor taste to go into detail. But I will say that store leadership brought in Feng Shui specialists who smudged every corner, hung crystals and mirrors from every ceiling, turning the store into a shrine, adding insult to injury by fueling those budding suspicions and turning them into a solidly notorious reputation.

My rebellious soul enjoyed being part of this “cultish” company that believed in being humane to animals and kind to the environment.  A progressive form of management allowed each team member to be involved in the decision making process on their teams and to bend over backwards for each and every customer. This was not the union-led grocery business that this region was accustomed to. Any team member could be rewarded monthly for customer service excellence. We could be nominated “rising stars” if we lived up to expectations. After all, team member happiness was part of the company’s core values. I was starry eyed and converted. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago.

The love affair eventually got old. The company grew too fast too soon. Profits took precedent, core values were taking a hit while team members scurried around trying to work harder and harder. We hung in there, diligently trying to keep it real and keep smiling. The growing pains forced WFM to lay off 1500 employees in one fell swoop last October. I was one of them.

Although I still have to work, I’ve chosen to stay away from retail. I want my week-ends back. I want to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be stories to tell eventually. But like with PTSD, memory is selective and I prefer not to dig up the most painful. I’m just grateful to have survived the trenches: Fifteen years of missing family-time during the Holidays, while keeping customers from falling apart and trying to stay cool and level-headed among the chaos, the insanity and the hysteria of holiday shopping.

What can I say, Ma? I simply got sucked into it: jumped on that treadmill and didn’t get off until they kicked me off. But I can breath now and I will figure out something and keep on going. That’s what I do. I’ve grown a little cynical and a tad blasé. But I can mine my memory-bank for anecdotes and stories to tell, some delightful and some disturbing. I may be penniless but I have amassed a wealth of knowledge, resources and inspiration. I will also cherish the many amazing encounters, relationships and friendships that I have developed with some of the most unique and wonderful people, customers and colleagues alike.

Another story for another day.

 

Ours Is Not To Question Why

Questioning makes for a “wobbly” existence filled with uncertainty and hesitation.

I am usually a “do-er”. But when I was laid off last October from Whole Foods Market (along with 1,500 team members and team leaders) there was a truck-load of questions that invaded my world. What now? What do I do? What path do I choose? Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I. I got to work immediately: I took art classes, I applied to over forty jobs in six months, I picked up a few paying gigs, volunteered a little, hosted on Air B&B, traveled, and most of all caught up with numerous friends. Many projects are in the works and I now have a part-time job as well. Everything is fighting for my attention including this blog that I started in February and which came to a halt in May.

I do not have writer’s block, just an existential block. I question why, and what and for whom, I “should” or “ought” to be writing. I seem paralyzed by a bourgeois guilt over “musing” about food while thinking about the malnourished, undernourished and the starving of this world. I wonder if I have now become a slave to my own creation, stuck at a crossroad without direction. I question, I hesitate and find myself going around in circles, burying my head and thoughts under my pillow each night…. then I have to face the silence… the failure to post… another week gone by. Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care? Do I even care about food and cooking anymore?

Then, on a recent morning, I woke up thinking of my red, white and blue salads. It was the Fourth (of course! it had to be). My 18 years of food marketing had me programmed. I am still thinking “holiday-related” foods. At work I would have been figuring out what to push, what to merchandise and what to sample. Now I am neither entertaining friends nor family. I am NOT cooking nor am I barbecuing! And yet I am dreaming of chopped watermelon drizzled with pomegranate molasses and dotted with feta crumbles and blueberries…. Images of basil pesto, mint and cucumber fill my nostrils with hallucinogenic aromas.  Have I gone mad or am I relieved?

I had started to think that perhaps my obsession with food is DEAD! I had been thinking that perhaps I had lost my appetite or that it all had been a false but mandatory professional conditioning. But, let’s face it, it IS summer and cooking in the heat is grueling. Even eating is not a pleasure when you can barely breath. But… I DID wake up thinking about my favorite Fourth of July salad. And perhaps I am ready to write and post again. That said…

There is no question in my mind that summer is for salads, any salad—Green salads, bean salads, fruit salads and red, white and blue salads. Even if I never write about food again, I should at least share the secrets to my successful salad dressing.

First, let me list my favorite classics:

Mozzarella, tomato & basil w/0r w/o shavings of fennel and a drizzle of olive oil
Watermelon, blueberry, feta & mint
Cannellini beans & tuna, onion, parsley with lots of lemon juice & olive oil
Garbanzo beans, tomato & chopped cucumber, garlic, lemon juice & olive oil
Soba noodles, cucumber, spring onion, Thai basil & peanuts (w/soy sauce & lime)
Corn & black bean salad, red bell peppers, garlic, cumin & cilantro
Beet & Arugula salad…

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A variety of salads from meals shared with friends. All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

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The perfect salad dressing

I’ve been eager to share the secret to my dressing. This is as good a time as any. The dressing won’t go with the Soba noodle salad mentioned above, and I would not use it for the Cannelini and tuna—although it might not be bad—I would use lemon juice instead.

I make this dressing on a daily basis for my green salad (mesclun mix, arugula, and or romaine) to which I add pear, orange or apple, cranberries or not, cucumber always, or tomato and roasted corn sometimes, especially in summer.

Fadia’s Never-Fail Salad Dressing:
1 clove garlic crushed, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses and 1/2 tsp olive oil. (If you do not use oil, you could substitute lime juice for the olive oil).

This amount is just right for a 2 – 3 people side salad or 1 large entree serving. The secret is also not to over soak your greens in dressing! That’s a mistake which will kill and wilt your greens and drown your salad in calories. You need just enough to coat it lightly, the juices from some of the fruit or veggies will add to the moisture.

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I used balsamic vinegar for years, but I find the pomegranate molasses (not a molasses at all, but a reduction of pomegranate juice) is less acidic, some brands have a little added sugar, but I swear it is my very favorite secret ingredient and it never fails to “wow” people over.

Salads are like paintings. You mix colors and add ingredients as you go. Add toppings: left-over grated cheese, bits of meats or frozen veggies, dried or fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, crushed seaweed, corn chips, toasted pita chips, the list is endless. Salad is a canvas for improvisation. Go for it! Be fearless and adventurous. Salads were my daughters’ first creations in the kitchen. At age four they’d sit at the kitchen counter and explore the possibilities, chopping, dumping and mixing. It’s a child’s game really.

So there you have it! I have just completed a post, and now… let’s hope I can leave my existential quandary behind and I can get back down to business (or will I ?). Until next week. 🙂