If you come to Los Angeles seeking to find Iranian Jews, you’d likely find them either at their synagogues or at Elat Market, one of the most popular locations where countless Iranian Jews gather in the Pico Robertson neighborhood. The market is not your typical grocery store but somewhere in between an American style supermarket and Persian style bazaar with a cornucopia of delectable delights to choose from. The store has more than 3,000 kosher items as well as produce, meat, fish, bakery items, nuts and dry goods, deli foods, frozen foods and also an array of Persian music you can buy over the counter. For the past 23 years Elat Market has grown from a small unknown 2,000 square foot grocery store to a near 20,000 square foot food emporium catering to the surrounding Jewish community. Some may consider Elat Market a shopper’s paradise just like the resort city in Israel, while others believe the market is a chaotic madhouse where only the bravest shoppers dare to enter!
In March of 2003, I had the rare opportunity to chat with one of the co-owners of Elat Market, Kevin Novin, for an article in the Beverly Hills Weekly newspaper. He explained that his store has become somewhat of a landmark not only for Iranian Jews but folks of various nationalities. “This store is famous internationally because we have a lot of experience in the business with fresh items, cheap prices and we offer hands-on personal service to all of our customers,” Novin said at the time. “About 50 percent of our customers are from Beverly Hills and they are Iranians, Israelis, Americans, Arabs, French and Russians.” The market’s store manager informed me that their biggest seller is Persian style cucumbers with approximately 2,000 pounds worth being sold per day and four palettes sold in a week. They also sell more than 1,000 pounds of lettuce and 1,000 pounds of grapes per day.
So you wonder just how in the heck Elat market can provide such fresh produce at such substantially lower prices than most supermarkets out there? The answer Novin gave was quite simple…“we can offer low prices because we buy in high quantity, have a low margin of profit but a high turnover rate.” This perhaps is the best reason why the store is often bursting at the seems with customers doing their weekly shopping and fighting for parking spaces around the store. Often times I’ve driven by there and seen folks waiting for hours on end to get inside as security officers have had to keep some shoppers out for periods of time because of the potential fire hazard with too many people inside the store.
Even when you get inside the store it can be quite the ordeal and there have been nasty exchanges between various shoppers vying for produce. I can recall one time when I had accompanied my grandmother to Elat Market and one young woman got into a near altercation with another older woman. The younger woman had picked out nearly a dozen Persian cucumbers and placed them in her shopping cart when the older woman just outright took the cucumbers from her cart and started walking off. Turning around, the younger woman caught the older woman walking away and called out “what the hell are you do with my cucumbers? Why don’t you go and pick out your own!” Everyone just stared at the two women briefly and went back to their shopping. The older woman ignored the younger woman and walked off. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed and just shrugged at the younger woman who was visibly furious but not willing to make a bigger scene for fear of ruining her reputation.
Before major Jewish holidays such as Passover, Elat Market is considered a war zone by many Iranian Jews in the community because so many folks are rushing to get their food shopping done before sundown. Most local younger Iranian Jews will probably tell you that they avoid going to Elat Market like avoiding the plague because of how busy and emotionally troubling the experience can often be. “Are you mad? I’d never go to Elat Market even if I was starving!” said one 24-year-old Iranian Jewish woman to me when I asked her about the market. “That store is one of the focal points of gossip, jealously and fake smiles in the community!” She then showed me her sister’s ankles that were bruised by women banging their shopping carts at her sister in order to get by at Elat Market. I’ll tell you, it’s a wonder to what extent people will go to get good deals on groceries these days!
Parking seems to be another serious issue for shoppers to Elat Market and with more cars packed into the residential streets surrounding the market, there is more noise for the neighbors. Fisible signs surround the exterior of the store asking shoppers not to honk their car horns. So you wonder why the owners of Elat Market don’t expand their store if it’s so packed? Well, from what I’ve been told the landlord who owns the entire block of stores refuses to permit any further expansion by Elat’s owners despite their very lucrative offers to him. Instead the “stubborn” landlord has for some reason leased the adjacent store to a competing Persian style grocery market! The adjacent market is called “Glatt Mart” and has been closed for rebuilding after a 2004 fire , completely destroyed it and is still under reconstruction and yet to be reopened. Glatt Mart is also owned by five other Iranian Jewish partners who were seeking to cash in on the grocery business that Elat had successfully tapped into.
When I asked Novin if he was concerned about competition from other markets in the area, he was quite confident. “Even if 10 more markets open up around Elat, it won’t make a difference to us because our quality and service are second to none and people will always compare our service with the new stores and come back,” said Novin. And that is exactly what has happened. Back in 2003, the grocery store next to Elat Market was called “Alef Market” and owned by Iranian Muslims who just could not compete with Elat and sold the business to Glatt Mart’s owners. “Zafar Market” was another grocery market in the same vicinity as Elat Market, located on the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Pico Boulevard that also folded because they were unable to keep their prices low and offer high quality produce like Elat.
Even though they have made a substantial amount of money, Elat Market’s owners have been generous when it comes to giving to charitable local Jewish causes and giving their excess food to poverty stricken Iranian Jews in the Southern California area. “We give money to the needy and we are well known in the local synagogues for giving donations,” said Novin.