Community: Sweet smell of success at Bristol Sweet Mart

Pommy Harmar, June 1, 2016

The world is on the move and families are coming across the Mediterranean in significant numbers. Abdul Ismail from Bristol’s much-loved Sweet Mart knows all too well what it’s like to be a refugee.

Kassam Ismail Majothi, his wife and six children are in a refugee camp. They’ve left everything behind them; their thriving business, a fleet of trucks, all their money. They have nothing but each other, relying solely on the kindness of strangers.

Bristol Sweet Mart on St Mark’s Road in Easton

A familiar tale? One we heard day after day last summer. The shocking stories of thousands of refugees, for whom crossing the Mediterranean to Greece in a small boat was judged to be less risk to their lives than staying in the place they called home.

But Majothi’s refugee camp was in Watchet, near Minehead in Somerset, and the year was 1972. They were one family amongst 68,000 Ugandan Asians, forced to flee by Idi Amin. Britain took in 27,200 almost overnight.

Bristol Sweet Mart deli

Four decades on, Majothi’s sons are now in charge of a thriving family business. Abdul looks after the shop. Salim buys the fruit and veg. Younis is in charge of IT and paperwork. Rashid manages the restaurant and wholesale trade. Abdul’s sister-in-law is responsible for the Deli.

‘”My father first came to Bristol on a day out from Watchet. It was love at first sight,” said Abdul, clearly very proud of his father.

“He didn’t want his children to claim benefits. He wanted us to work and he started us young in the shop.”

In the world of spice shops, the Sweet Mart is the showstopper; the centrepiece of St Mark’s Road; the pride and joy of the Ismail family. 

Bristolians know it well but its reputation extends far beyond the city walls and is now widespread across the South West.

There are 8000 items of which 4000 are not in the supermarkets. The family buys in 35 different coconut products alone and sell 120 chilli sauces.

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Before the interview, I had done a little shopping of my own. 

Who knew that there could be so many types of basmati rice? Or such a bewildering number of spices?  Or that pomegranate molasses is made by at least three different companies in four different sizes?

“We have changed the scene in Bristol. Our customers are extremely discerning these days,” said Abdul.  “They don’t ask for Mediterranean spice – they want Moroccan, Syrian, Tunisian or Egyptian.” His arms flail as he draws a map of North Africa in the air.

And what of the future? He tells me the business will go to the younger ones if they want it. He has worked long hours for 20 years and plans to enjoy life now.

“I don’t want to borrow money to expand into Bath, where the rates and rents are high and the parking is difficult. I’m 60 and love climbing mountains. I’ve been to Everest basecamp you know.”

Abdul peers at me over his glasses. He looks so neat in his checked shirt; I couldn’t imagine him roughing it high up a mountain. 

“I’ve travelled to 62 countries. I love staying with local people, eating local food and bringing back ideas. Life is there to experience. Why not enjoy it?”

And what is Abdul’s own comfort food?

“You won’t believe it,” he said, lowering his voice, “but once a week I love eating fish and chips. It reminds me of when life was simple. Who wants to eat curry seven days a week?” He laughs loudly. “It’s too much!”

 

Read more: The Flexit Campaign

 

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