This week please join us on an epicurean journey with Ilana Chamelly, second generation at Martha’s Vineyard. Ilana shares her personal experience and her family’s experience in creating one of Grand Rapids’ premier gourmet markets, cafe, pizza shop, bakery, and new Mediterranean restaurant, Marcona.
Diana: [00:03] Good afternoon, this is Diana Schad, CEO of Family Business Alliance. Today we are meeting with Ilana Chamelly, second generation family member of Martha’s Vineyard here in Grand Rapids. Ilana, it’s nice to see you!
Ilana: [00:14] Nice to see you!
Diana: [00:15] Thanks! So, I wanted to start with some basic background questions. Could you tell us a little bit about how the business was started and the year it was started?
Ilana: [00:24] So, my dad has always been into, just, different… different ventures. Let’s see, back in the ’80s he started a small sandwich shop called Eastown Deli in Eastown.
Diana: [00:39] I have been to Eastown Deli!
Ilana: [00:40] [laughs] Yeah! So, he started that…. oh man… I’m not sure if it was 80’s, late 70’s, early 80’s… I always forget dates. So, he started that and was working that, and he ended up coming into this location here. It used to be just kind of a stop and go liquor store, and he got to know the owner just by stopping by on his way home from work, back and forth. So, this was his regular, consistent stop.
He got to know the owner and the owner was like, “I really want to sell”, and my dad’s like “I don’t have the money to buy this store from you!”. And he [the shop owner] was like, “Well, let’s keep talking”. My dad ended up buying the store as a land contract and that must have been 1984, I think we are in our 34th year. If that is the correct math there. So… in 1984 he bought the business and it was just a stop and go shop. Very small, just liquor, cigarettes, maybe a few snacks. That’s when he started this endeavor.
Diana: [01:44] So, I’m a little off track here, but I’m just curious; did he always have an interest in cooking and gourmet? You’re such a gourmet shop now.
Ilana: [01:52] I’m… I’m not quite sure! I don’t think so. [Laughs]
Diana: [01:55] Ok, it just kind of developed that way.
Ilana: [01:56] I think it did! I guess growing up in a Lebanese family, food is always prevalent. I guess he has always had an interest in food, working in a deli and offering good food to the neighborhood and community around. So that was probably a little bit of a driver for the store. But, he gave it a name… something that he could grow into. A name that wasn’t associated with himself, but that already had an image. So, Martha’s Vineyard, knowing the island and the history and prestige of the island, he used that as the store’s name to give the store something to grow, grow into. I’m not sure that he knew what it was going to develop into, but he wanted something to move towards.
Diana: [02:46] Okay. So, tell us a little bit more about Martha’s Vineyard that our listeners don’t know, what do you offer the West Michigan community?
Ilana: [02:54] I always say that we are a gourmet grocer, specialty wine shop. We have a very large deli selection of prepared foods that come up to the store daily that we make fresh, we have an amazing chef in the deli, Najwa, who makes authentic Mediterranean cuisine and other foods.
We do fresh sandwiches, we have a deli for sliced meats, pastry selection that’s from our bakery… wine, lots and lots of wine [laughs] if you need some, I think we have it for you! We have a very nice, softer, liquor selection. We have fresh produce that we just expanded into a couple years ago, grocery and gourmet grocery. What else am I missing…. Oh! And pizza [Martha’s Pizza], we do pizza. Pizza by the slice and to order.
Diana: [03:44] And you’ve kind of grown over time, it seems like every few years you are expanding into a new area.
Ilana: [03:49] Yup. Just, a lot of slow expansion.
Diana: [03:52] That’s a good way to do it. It’s smart planning. I saw in your store that you have a large “Made in Michigan” section. Why is it important to support the local businesses to you?
Ilana: [04:03] It’s a lot of people that we know within the community. It’s so cool, we have a young girl who has shopped with us for quite a while, she was working at Love’s Ice Cream downtown. She started her own ice cream line, Cone Appétit, she gives 15% of her proceeds to fight against sex trafficking. So, she is a local company, not only are we supporting our local economy, but our local community. People that shop with us and have been loyal to us. There are multiple levels to why we support local.
Diana: [04:40] How many generations are involved in the business, and what generation are you?
Ilana: [04:45] So, Kameel would be first generation, right? Or initial? How does that…
Diana: [04:51] He would be the first, yup.
Ilana: [04:52] Ok, so Kameel is first, then I would be second generation.
Diana: [04:57] Are there any other family members, or just you involved?
Ilana: [04:59] My younger sister came on four years ago and opened our coffee shop [Lyon Street Cafe], which is located next to the store. I work predominately in the store here, and oversee some of our other businesses, our catering business [Martha’s Catering] and our bakery [Nantucket Baking Company]. My sister runs our coffee shop.
Diana: [05:19] What is your dad’s role in the business versus your role? What are your responsibilities?
Ilana: [05:25] I guess, in kind of a joking way, my dad always says I am an extension of him, or I am his octopus arm [laughs]. So, I’m growing into the business and following him as well as managing my own departments. So Kameel oversees everything. He is involved in everything to some degree, whereas over the past few years I’ve had to work my way into the business. I started stocking, and now I have taken over various departments within the store, and I help Kameel in other adventures that he gets himself into.
Diana: [06:00] Oh, ok. I mean, it’s been 34 years, so I’m assuming you were very young, if born at the time that it started. What are some of your memories of growing up in the business and being a part of a family business?
Ilana: [06:13] Growing up I thought my dad’s job was just very natural, I thought everyone had this experience. Being able to go to work with your family, with your dad. I was really lucky. My teta, my grandma, pretty much started in the store with my dad when he started this business. When my dad built the deli my teta, my grandma, came on and started running the deli.
I was lucky growing up to wake up really early in the morning, and my dad would load me in his big white truck, and we would come to work super early in the morning and I would work in the deli with my grandma making sandwiches and making hummus and helping customers. I’d stock shelves and dust shelves all morning, and then go play with different bottles [laughs]. Make things out of big boxes that I would find! Just kind of run around the store. I’m sure make a little bit of trouble too.
Diana: [07:12] Did you always expect to come back to the business, or did you think about doing something else before coming back?
Ilana: [07:17] I didn’t expect to come into the business. I studies languages in college, so I’m more of humanities major, not quite into business. But, when I graduated, I really needed to spend time with my family at that time. Some things were going on, so I took a year in Grand Rapids. My dad offered me a position to work and said, “Just come for one year”, and I was like “Alright, let’s do this”.
So, I came to work for one year, and I had never been challenged so much. I kind of thought to myself, I can go back to school, pursue a career in languages or translation, but this is just so interesting. No one else will invest so much knowledge in me. My dad really wanted me to grow, and to learn, so he’s always giving me new tasks and no year has been the same. It’s always been evolving and growing, the responsibilities that I have keep piling on, which is fun [laughs]. That’s a big part of why I have stayed, to be close to family is really incredible.
Diana: [08:29] Yeah, it becomes more and more important to me, anyway, the older you get. It seems like you realize that you want to spend time with the people that you are closes to.
Ilana: [08:39] And some days are really difficult to be next to family all the time! My sister in the coffee shop, or my dad in the store. I’m sure there are days that he doesn’t want to see me here too! For the most part, I think we are just so grateful for the support that we all have.
Diana: [08:59] You raise a really good point, there are really great moment and sometimes there’s difficult moments. What are some of the resources that you have relied on to navigate this journey with the family business?
Ilana: [09:08] Honestly speaking, FBA has been incredible for me. I came into it, I think my first or my second year working at the store, and that’s been just an incredible resource. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay when I first started, but each year I just keep staying. Not because it is easy to stay, but because of the challenge. I’ve found that getting into the FBA so early into my career at the store has given me a lot of support.
Meeting other people that work in their family businesses, I have an outlet to talk to them about difficult conversations that I need to have. One thing that comes up a lot is that I learn from them the things that I don’t yet know to ask about the business, about growing a business, about financials, some of the issues that my [peer] group members face help me learn before I have to face some of those issues.
Diana: [10:10] And that would be the peer group program, right, that you are a part of?
Ilana: [10:11] Yes, the peer group.
Diana: [10:13] And how many years have you been a part of a peer group?
Ilana: [10:15] I think we are celebrating our fifth! Or we just did.
Diana: [10:20] That’s terrific.
Ilana: [10:21] We’re five years strong and I really love all of them, everyone in our group.
Diana: [10:27] Good, good! To switch gears a little bit, is Martha’s advertised as a family business? Is that something that you really promote, or something that is kind of a given part of the business?
Ilana: [10:36] It’s never been really advertised. I think because my dad started the business on his own, my teta was present, but never anything that he focused on or felt was necessary to focus on. As my sister and I are coming in we do refer to the business as a family business. Yeah, it’s a community business I guess. My sister and I are involved with my dad, we have built a family with the community around us. But we don’t really feel like we need to talk about it that much. I think you can feel it more when you come in rather than us needing to say it to promote the store.
Diana: [11:16] Right. You are in such a great community! For our listeners that haven’t been here, you kind of have this wonderful block [at Union and Lyon in Grand Rapids] in this great neighborhood that people are walking their dogs to and sitting out at the cafe tables. It really is to me such a big part of the community here.
Ilana: [11:32] I think you can feel it when you come into the store. My coworkers are like family. I spend more time with them than I do at my house! [laughs] I spend more time here. Even customers, we can check up them, we know what is going on with their families, we can just stay involved in their lives to. I don’t think it’s anything that we need to promote necessarily, but I do think that it is something that you notice and feel when you are in the store.
Diana: [12:01] Well, you have mentioned a bakery, the store, the cafe… and I have heard a rumor that you are opening a new venture! Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Ilana: [12:11] A new venture and adventure. [laughs]
Diana: [12:13] [laughs]
Ilana: [12:15] This is Kameel’s newest venture/adventure. We are opening a new restaurant called Marcona, it is going to be on the same block [at Union and Lyon]. Kameel is partnering with chef Matt Overdevest on this venture, it is opening up in a couple of weeks. The vision for this is Mediterranean. It’s not going to be your typical sense of Mediterranean, I guess sometimes people sense maybe middle eastern food, or just one country specific food. It is going to be pulling from all cuisine throughout the Mediterranean, so you have Spain, Italy, you have France of course, but then you have North Africa, you have Greece, Turkey. Any country that does touch the Mediterranean, they will be pulling influence from those flavors.
Diana: [13:01] And will it be more fine dining or casual dining?
Ilana: [13:05] I think it’s going to be more casual. We are trying to give a space for the neighborhood, so nothing too fancy.
Diana: [13:11] Breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Ilana: [13:12] We are going to be doing dinner to start, and brunch on the weekends.
Diana: [13:17] Oh, terrific.
Ilana: [13:18] In addition to dinner, yeah. But that will be a slow process. Yeah.
Diana: [13:22] Good, good! And you said it’s opening in a few weeks?
Ilana: [13:25] Yes, I believe two weeks [as of September 24th]. We don’t have an open date yet, I think it’s just going to…open. And hopefully you happen upon it at the right time! [Laughs]
Diana: [13:36] I hope so! Well thank you so much for telling us about the restaurant. We are really excited to see it open and wish you the very best of luck!
Ilana: [13:44] Thank you!
Diana: [13:45] One last question, what is the best part of working with your family?
Ilana: [13:49] I think the best part is honestly just being with them every day. For some people this is probably too much, too much time to spend with family. But, I think at least right now, we’re at a place where we have been able to kind of separate our home life and our work life a little bit. All of us together, so we can compartmentalize how we interact with each other at work and at home.
It is just so wonderful to walk into work and see my dad, or to grab a coffee in the morning, and that’s my sister making my coffee. It fills my heart, I feel so lucky to be learning from them and to be challenged by them. Having my younger sister work with me… we have such different personalities. She challenges me like you can’t even believe. She asks such great questions all the time. Her viewpoint on things are very different from mine, so she is always challenging me in different situations and offering different viewpoints, which helps me learn and grow.
I am just so thankful that I have people that can be so straight forward and honest with me too. Not that you can’t have that in other work environments, but I am just very thankful for that.
Diana: [15:10] Wonderful. Well, before we part, any last words of wisdom to offer our listeners? Anything about working with the family business that you would like to share?
Ilana: [15:18] I think sometimes it can be difficult to work with your family, to spend so much time [together], to hear the difficult things that they have to say to you sometimes. It can get monotonous. I guess one word of advice would be, when things are getting difficult, try to step outside of yourself.
Really look at the community around you, the people around you. Sometimes, I know personally, I can get so focused on how stressed I am, or some difficult projects that I am working on. So, I suggest, in these difficult situations, to really step outside and really look at how fortunate we are. Sometimes it gets rough in the storm, and you think “Why am I really doing this?”.
I’ve had to pull myself out and really look at the neighborhood around me and the community around me. I realize that what we do here is so much bigger than just being a specialty grocer. It’s really feeding the neighborhood, building the community, and making people smile behind the register! Sometimes I can take those short interactions for granted, but you can really make someone’s day by being patient and asking them how they are doing. I say, step outside of yourself, look around you, and I think sometimes that can make difficult time a little bit easier.
Diana: [16:35] Well you are a wonderful contribution to the community and a great market! Thank you so much for joining us today, it was wonderful talking with you and we thank you for being here.
Ilana: [16:45] Thank you!