DUNEDIN — The International Food Mart is easy to miss, sandwiched between other small shops on Overcash Drive off Main Street, but once inside, visitors will encounter enticing aromas and flavors of foreign lands.
Owner Ghada Abdo, who emigrated from Lebanon to Massachusetts with her parents and five siblings in 1977, opened the store in January 2012 and can hardly believe her good fortune.
"This place is a miracle," said Abdo, 51, a former Pinellas Park High School teacher. "By the fourth month, we had broken even."
That miracle actually rests on a strong entrepreneurial spirit, a lot of hard work and the courage to take a risk. In late 2011 Abdo, a single mother with two young adult sons, went into an Asian market on Overcash that was going out of business. She was searching for a freezer for a friend's convenience store.
While she was there, an idea took root. What if she bought all the equipment on sale, rented the shop for a year to test her luck and had a business to call her own?
She did just that and the little place on Overcash Drive became hers. Before she could open, she had to decide what kinds of food to stock.
"I wanted to include Asian foods," said Abdo, who moved from Massachusetts to Palm Harbor in 1996, "but I knew I couldn't survive on that alone."
She slowly added cultural treats from around the world, stacking them on shelves and arranging them in freezers.
"People from different cultures usually prefer the brands they know and their own style of cooking," Abdo said, "but Americans like everything and are willing to try other ethnic foods."
One aisle is devoted entirely to Asian rice and flour noodles. Those with a taste for the Mideast will find jars of tahini, the thick paste made from ground sesame seeds, and hummus, made from lemon, garlic and chickpeas. Mexican spices are heaped on racks at the end of one aisle.
One recent morning, a steady stream of shoppers browsed the aisles. Among them was Elsie Goodman of Clearwater, picking and choosing among jars and cans in the Middle Eastern aisle.
"I like foods that are out of the ordinary," said Goodman, a regular customer. "I enjoy all of these spices."
Shoppers come from far away as well. Former Lake Tahoe residents Debby and Bill Kasson, who now live "wherever we park the RV," found the store online and came in to buy lemongrass, an Asian herb with a little kick.
"We're vegans and we knew we could find things we could eat here," Debby said.
Shoppers also might opt for tall bottles of olive oils from Greece, Italy and Turkey, or boxes of coffees and teas from Germany, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon and the Far East.
Fresh produce is part of the mix as well, including big, white daikon (radishes), popular in Japanese cooking, and bunches of baby bok choy.
The sale of food products doesn't tell the whole story of the new food mart, though. Shortly after opening, Abdo renovated the small kitchen and began offering lunch from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on weekdays and catering meals for private parties or businesses for up to 40 people.
Then the weekly cooking classes began.
"People would come in and say they wanted to try a particular food item but didn't know what to do with it," Abdo said, "so we started giving classes once a week after we closed for the day."
Initially, she hired a Vietnamese chef and a Middle Eastern one, but Jeannette Yaman, a native of Syria, is currently the only chef. Yaman prepares dishes like stuffed grape leaves, chicken shawarma and baba ghanouj, a dip prepared with lemon, garlic and eggplant. Abdo assists Yaman with catering.
Abdo said she never doubted she could make the store work.
"I have utilized everything I ever learned," she said. That knowledge covers a lot of ground, including a college education in history, business and political science, as well as five years of teaching world history at Pinellas Park High School. Teaching, she said, provides a valuable background in organization and communication. Her first lessons in success, though, came from her immigrant parents.
"We had $7,000 when we came here in 1977," she said of her family of eight, all of whom went to work wherever they could get jobs, including a factory and a dry cleaning business.
"We pooled our money so my father could buy a diner," Abdo said. "He didn't know anything about food at the time."
The diner was a success and her father then purchased a nightclub.
"He had the vision, and we were all the worker bees," she said of her mother, herself and her siblings.
Now Abdo and her younger son, Steven Gould, 24, have picked up the mantle of the last generation. Gould designed the market's website and does the marketing for the store. He also researched all the Asian products and arranged for Groupon offerings.
Abdo has her own vision. She hopes to expand the fresh produce section and, down the road, open several other stores using this one as a model.
She says she is not unique in her ability to bring a dream to fruition.
"We all have the skills to be an entrepreneur," she said. "You just have to find your niche."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.