Back when Monier Attar opened Zand’s in 1988, finding traditional Middle Eastern ingredients, like harissa and pomegranate molasses, in the Bay Area was not as easy as it is today. Even foods that are now commonplace, like hummus, weren’t readily available.
Which is why Attar, who moved to the United States from Iran in 1984, decided to open a little Middle Eastern market in Albany.
“I was doing something very new,” Attar said as she mixed a fresh batch of tabouli in the back of the deli. “Markets didn’t carry our merchandise, our specialties. I started when nobody made these things.”
It was her father, who was visiting from Iran, who first convinced her to open the shop. He found a 500-square-foot retail space at 1021 Solano Ave., close to where she was living at the time. He lent her the money to open a store where Attar could sell Iranian merchandise and her homemade pastries.
“As soon as I opened the shop, Iranians came. We got really, really busy,” said Attar.
They were so popular with the community that one day the fire department arrived and asked customers to leave the space — there were just too many people in the tiny store at once. People started to suggest she expand into a bigger space with a kitchen to make and sell Mediterranean and Persian food. She listened, and, in the spring of 2001, Attar moved into her current space at 1401 Solano Ave.
But now, after 30 years, the end is near for Zand’s, at least at its current location. Attar will close the neighborhood market and deli on June 30.
“The landlord doesn’t want to renew my lease,” Attar said. “He told me he wanted to go in a different direction.”
This isn’t the first time Attar was forced to close one of her businesses. In Iran, she ran a successful French pastry shop for several years, but the Iranian revolution that started in the late ’70s ended her business and changed her life. After Attar refused to abide by the new regime’s laws that obligated women to wear hijabs, the government closed her shop in 1982. Two years later, she packed up her two young kids and fled for California.
“The feelings I have today are the same as when the government shut down my shop,” Attar said with tears in her eyes.
And Attar is not the only one who’s upset about Zand’s closing. She said customers who’ve heard the news have been streaming in over the last few days, lamenting the closure and encouraging her to continue the business elsewhere. As we were speaking, John Dyckman, a longtime customer who saw the signs in the windows announcing the shop’s impending closure, walked in just to thank Attar for her service. A psychologist with an office across from Zand’s, Dyckman said he’s been coming in for the last 25 years.
“This is a wonderful institution. When I want tabouli, I know I can get it fresh here,” he said. “If you want fresh and good Mediterranean food, this is the place.”
Attar prepares all the deli offerings herself on a daily basis. She offers Persian dishes, like tah-cheen (basmati rice cooked with saffron, chicken and barberries) and kookoo sabzi (Persian herb frittata), adapted from her mother’s recipes, as well as standard Mediterranean fare like falafel wraps, hummus, dolmas and spanikopita.
In the retail area, Zand’s offers spices, teas, oils, condiments, jams and other imported Middle Eastern ingredients. Every year in March, Persians from all over the Bay Area head to the shop to stock up on ingredients for Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Here, they find sabzeh (sprouted wheat), somaq (crushed sumac) and other ingredients to celebrate the first day of spring.
Her Iranian customers, who make up about 25% of her business, are already worried about what they’ll do and where they’ll go for next year’s Nowruz. While Attar said she’s currently focusing her energy on finishing this last month in the shop, she is telling the community not to worry, that in some shape or form, she hopes to be there for them even after Zand’s closes. She plans to offer catering services and cooking classes, and if she can find the right person to help her and an affordable space, she’d even consider opening a new shop in the future.
“For 30 years, I did it for my community, my customers, my father — that was his wish. After that, I’m not going to give it up,” said Attar. “I love my job, I really do.”
But before the next chapter of Zand’s begins, Attar plans to take a much-needed break. She works at Zand’s seven days a week and is looking forward to her first summer off in 30 years. She plans to spend it with her grandchildren and visit her 92-year-old mother in Iran.
Zand’s will be open through June 30, during normal business hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. Before it’s too late, stop in for a falafel sandwich or a slice of tah-cheen and say hello to Attar, who’s almost always there. While you’re there, be sure to add your name to the Zand’s mailing list to find out what she’s up to next.