A supermarket in distress

It’s Saturday morning, and a dozen post-middle-aged nine-to-fivers cluster in front of a small wooden table inside Al-Habib Supermarket. A woman at the back of the line balances an armful of powdered milk as she steadily taps her foot against the dusty checkered floor. She constantly glances from her Blackberry to the gap-toothed woman named Saadia Khan on the table’s other side. A few seconds later, Khan nods toward the smartphone-hooked woman and says, “I know a boy that your daughter will love.”

Located across the road from Markham’s largest mosque, on Denison Road, Al-Habib sells everything from Halal meat to imported spices from Pakistan, cones of henna and the newest Bollywood blockbusters on DVDs. Most customers value Al-Habib more for its socializing prospects than the dwindling customer service and continually changing tenancy. Word on the streets is that anybody looking for love can find the partner of their dreams here.

Weekends at Al-Habib are all about Khan’s homemade fried bread with chickpea curry and Halwa dessert. Halwa is a thickly sweet concoction of semolina, sugar, butter and powdered cardamom. Her special dishes are so popular that she sells three large pots in an average of two hours. There are always customers who come back the next day asking for more. Priced at slightly less than five bucks for a combo, Khan’s dishes are a steal.

Last spring, Khan introduced a 25-year old medical student to her present-day fiancé, as they waited for her famous Halwa. Both of them previously chatted with her about their goals, hobbies and daily routines without the intention of “meeting someone.” Yet, Khan “accidentally” switched their orders, and used the situation as an opportunity to initiate the couple’s first conversation.

Back at the Halwa stall, Khan’s declaration results in an agreeable exchange of phone numbers. Playing cupid, Khan discloses the young man’s postgraduate university education, passion for soccer, aptitude in the kitchen, and boyish good looks—all ideal traits for a potential son-in-law. With her fresh food dangling from her pinky in a plastic bah, the grinning woman walks out, after picking up two dropped two cans of powdered milk off the floor. Notably, Khan doesn’t charge for matchmaking.

Despite the countless mingling prospects, customers are increasingly disgruntled by Al-Habib’s new image. Until three years ago, the supermarket was favourably known as “Zum Zum”—a title that still resonates strongly with customers today. With Arab origins, Zum Zum renders its name from an Islamic spring water well, perceived as a modern-day miracle by most Muslims. Located in the holy city of Mecca, Zum Zum water represents continuity. Despite being consumed by millions of people annually, for hundreds of years, the well never dried up. Al-Habib, however, is anything but constant.

After opening its doors for the first time in 2000, the supermarket adapted itself to five different owners. It’s not the vendors that keep this place running but the people, says Haris Ahmed, a neighbourhood resident who resents the store’s presence so close to home. One-third ethnic grocery store, one-third social hub, and one-third hushed matchmaking service, Al-Habib looks to its customers for identity.

An employee replaces one of the freezers’ glass doors as an elderly man grabs two mango kulfis, one for himself and the other for his toddler granddaughter. Cardboard boxes of imported oranges line the sides of the freezer doors. Their brilliant orange colour strongly contrasts with the greys and beiges of the mountains of basmati rice in front of them.

Regular customers, such as Sarah Mian, believe new competitor stores will cost Al-Habib its loyal clientele. If customers have no incentive to buy their products, socializing and shopping can be done at a cleaner and more efficient supermarket that has friendlier staff, says Mian. Soon after she first visited Al-Habib, four years ago, its quality products and competent service impressed Mian. Now, however, she only shops at Zum Zum as a last resort.

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