by Gail Bensinger
One day a couple of decades ago, the owner of a small deli in the Inner Sunset neighborhood decided on a whim to take the Monterey Boulevard exit off Interstate 280, and discovered a neighborhood he had never been in before. A vacant storefront caught his eye, and he decided on the spot to open a second Cheese Boutique.
That wandering driver, Rachid Malouf—known to his legions of satisfied customers as Rick—has been a fixture in the heart of the Glen Park village for 19 years. When he moved into the Chenery Street space, there were no white-napkin restaurants, no gourmet grocery or taqueria. The wine shop down the block was owned by Tiffany and Paul Farr, and the two neighboring stores, along with Creighton’s and Sweet Sue’s bakeries, began the gentle gentrification of Glen Park.
Rick recalls those early days as tough. He asked the people who came for cheese what else they wanted him to stock, learning local tastes and introducing his customers to the Middle Eastern hummus, tabouli and baba ganoush that he and his wife Nada make by the gallon. They treated their customers as friends, remembering birthdays and asking about vacations, telling jokes and talking about stuff that had nothing to do with cheese, like the complicated politics of their native Lebanon.
“They became our extended family,” he said.
And the Maloufs became ours. Their daughters Rima, now 27 and a paralegal, and Carla, now 22 and a first-grade teacher, spent plenty of time making sandwiches and offering tastes of cheese when they weren’t attending college classes. (One of these days their 11-year-old brother Michael might put on an apron, too.) Rick’s nephew Brian Anthony now manages the Irving Street Cheese Boutique and his cousin Fadi Malouf, a sometime counterman whose dimpled smile shows off the family connection, perfected his delicious fig jams by offering tastes to everyone who came into the shop.
Rick, 54, and Nada, 48, come from the same village in the Lebanese mountains, and both were educated in French-speaking schools in Beirut. Cheese wasn’t part of their future plans; Rick wanted to attend university in Paris, while Nada started college in Lebanon but quit when they got married. Both spoke Arabic and French, but knew little English when they arrived in America.
After the Lebanese civil war broke out in the 1970s, when Rick was 19, his parents decided to send him to San Francisco, where two of his four sisters lived. As an only son, he was exempt from conscription, but they were taking no chances. He started working for one of his brothers-in-law, who owned two delis, learning English and picking up some delicatessen Italian along the way. He again met Nada, the younger sister of boyhood friends, on a visit to Kfar Aaqab in 1984, and returned a year later for their wedding.
Nada, too, has Middle Eastern turmoil in her background, though she doesn’t remember the details. When she was three months old, her family took her to an ancient monastery in nearby Syria to be baptized. They expected to be there for a few hours before returning to Lebanon. But on that day, a coup led by Hafez al-Assad overthrew the Syrian government, and they were stranded with no luggage or supplies for the baby until the border reopened three weeks later. Nada’s mother recalls a soldier asking about the party of 25, wondering at “so many people for a girl?”
The couple first opened a shop on Taraval Street, but that failed. “We didn’t make a go of it, we didn’t know how to run a business,” Rick said. But they tried again, and with the help of a generous landlady on Irving Street they learned the ropes. That branch was 6 years old when Rick drove for the first time past Diamond and Chenery streets.
The vacant Glen Park store had been an Italian deli until the previous owner died. That landlady, too, helped the couple succeed.
The Maloufs intend tostay in Glen Park until they retire a decade or more from now. Nada said she’d like to return to college then, to study nutrition. When he retires, Rick wouldn’t mind helping out some young person who is starting a business. They both believe firmly that the kindness that you send out into the world gets returned. “When I was in my 20s and needed help, I used to have older people who helped me,” Rick said.
The Maloufs, now U.S. citizens, lived above the Irving Street shop until Michael’s birth, when they bought a house in Daly City. Eventually Rick’s parents, both of whom have since died, came to the Bay Area, while Nada’s family settled in Canada.
Their Lebanese ties remain strong: two of Rick’s sisters and other relatives from both families still live there, and all the local Maloufs return from time to time. Rick gets a bit dreamy talking about the tiny tract of mountain land he inherited from his father, now planted with fig trees. “It’s quiet and calm there,” he said, showing photos of individual trees as if they were members of his family, too. There was a lot of rain this winter, so he expects a good crop of fruit: “The birds will enjoy that.” Hoping to grow figs at home, he planted a tree in Daly City: “The gophers had a good time, but I was very sad the gophers ate the roots.”
When word spread in Glen Park late last year that the Maloufs would lose their lease because the building had been sold, people streamed in to say how sorry they were and to offer help. “I can’t forget the love and passion the customers have shown,” Rick said. “That really goes deep inside you.” As reported in the spring issue of the Glen Park News, a happy ending—and a new beginning next door—was provided by the Daleres, who have moved their salon upstairs and rented the storefront to the Cheese Boutique, to great gratitude of the Maloufs and the neighborhood.
The switch-over required new plumbing – 4 sinks! – and electrical work, but city inspections went smoothly. The new shop is much smaller, so they have downsized, jettisoning some groceries and frozen foods they once carried. But the cheeses and meats, the house-made sandwiches and Middle Eastern foods still attract the same loyal Glen Park customers.
“We love the people here,’’ Nada said. “It reminds us of back home—everybody knows everybody.”