One on One with Ed Hyder: Worcester Magazine

By Allen W. Fletcher
From Worcester Magazine - December 29, 2005

Ed Hyder is the proprietor of Ed Hyder's Mediterranean Marketplace on Pleaseant Street.  Born in Worcester, he attended Dartmouth Street School, Grafton Street Junior High School and North High School, later earning a BA in history from Worcester State College.  He worked in his family's market as a young man, and he started his own market in 1975, moving to his current location 11 years ago.  He has also played drums for many years in a variety of Middle Eastern and light jazz bands.  He is 55 years old.

Did you work in your father's market?

As a little, you sweep floors, you learn how to greet customers.  When I was 10 years old, I was told that my cousin needed help at the store.  I said, "Tomorrow?" and he said, "No, from now on."  That was Hyder's Market on Hamilton Street.  They were up there for almost 60 years and I worked there from the age of 10, every day after school, all day Saturday, until I was 18.  At 18, I had a fight with my uncle in front of customers, so my father fired me and I left and told them I never wanted to see another store again.

But it sucked you back?

I wanted to start a business because I was planning on getting married, so I combined what I liked - the imported nature, along with the groceries that I knew.  I went to New York and Chicago and to food shows and found more sources and then I finally drained my savings and opened up on December 4, 1975.  It was a funny thing, because the first day was great and then the second day, I think I did $3.55.  I didn't know whether to lock the door and go home or not, but I came back for the third day, and luckily it's climbed a lot since.

What is your ethnic background?

I am Lebanese Christian.  My family has been in America since 1906 on my father's side; since 1909 on my mother's side.  My grandfather had a business on Grafton Hill, as wholesalers and retailers of fruit and produce, and then in the 1930s they located on Hamilton Street and my father and grandfahter ended up buying out their neighborhood meat market.  So my father became a meat cutter, which was passed along to my Uncle Mike, and my Uncle Moe became the produce man, and all the kids in the family were in the store.  We grew up over the store - in the backyard, in the store.  That was our social element.  They pretty much catered to the Irish, French and Italian families on Grafton Hill, and the Middle Eastern families came to us for the lamb and some basic groceries, but the real ethnic groceries were located on Wall Street, Suffolk Street, Norfolk Street, Shrewsbury Street.  We were pretty much the Americanized family.  The three-deckers all were occupied - there were no long-distance ownerships at that time - so you grew up knowing your neighbors.  We would have a cookout in the summertime on a Sunday; we would have a roast going on in the backyard, and the Italian kids next door would be handing us pizza and we would be handing them hotdogs and hamburgers.  It's what we did.

Describe to me the evolution of gourmet tastes in America, as you have seen them.  They've certainly expanded greatly, haven't they?

You and I are both of the same age.  We can remember the S.S. Pierce stores in Boston.  At one time, maybe 75 years ago, when you were a well-healed Boston brahmin you would walk in, be seated in almost a bar-stool, a very high chair, and orders would be brought to you - little Seville oranges in crates and all the beautiful foods.  Things would be presented and you would choose what you wanted, it would be wrapped, and it would be delivered to your home.  

People come in wanting mostly foods, half of it prepared for them, so they can take it home and cook, but the real foodies are the ones who want to come in and buy the ingredients.  They want the special-flavored vinegars, they want the oils that taste like grass or mushrooms.  They want something really nice - a Vietnamese chili sauce, where you can barely feel your tongue afterward.  We cater to both.

The population of foodies, is that new and expanding?

The Food Network has opened the floodgates.  People know now that it's not magical.  They can create good-looking, good-smelling food.  And people enjoy themselves, entertaining at home.  People will come in Monday through Thursday noon - those are the regular days - but Thursday noon through Saturday night, they are planning their weekend and their meals and they have a very long list of what they need and we try to satisfy their needs.

It seems to me you're right in step with the evolution of Worcester - you are catering to the middle class that has evolved from the time when all the ethnic groups were working-class and they had their own markets.

I think we have all evolved together.  When I started out, I had 200 products in my store and I knew how to cook every one.  Now I'm trying to learn, because I have 3,500.  I still consider myself an ethnic market, but I am pan-ethnic, and I have people who are willing to try other people's ethnic cuisine.  That's something that has only happened in the last decade.  In my first few locations, I had a preponderance of Middle Easterners.  Now it's everyone, which is great.  But the ethnic groups had brought us such a rich culture.  People are always proud of who they are and they want to share that with others.  What's that I smell cooking in the back yard?  I continue to have more of the first generation coming in.  We have Brazilians, West Africans coming in now.

What's the most exotic stuff for you - the stuff that you get excited about when it comes into the store?

Exotic, to me, is any type of food that excites you.  Growing up, I had like eight brothers - and my aunts, my friends' mothers, my own mother - everybody cooked ethnic.  When you walked into a place, you smelled basil, cinnamon, all these great things.  In the ethnic family, the table is central to everything.  All the things that I grew up with, other people would shriek in horror, but properly prepared, with proper spices, I thought it was the greatest thing.  There are so many fine things in food.

Did you make your own children work in the store?

Yes, I did.  But unlike my father, I paid my children.  And I gave them the option of a number of days they wanted to work.  My son always said that I never gave him the option, because he is there six days a week with me, but I believe he chose that.  But I wanted them to experience it.  I wanted them to enjoy the experience of learning how to work with people and I think they have done well.  They have all learned how to deal with people, how to run a small business, and I think the confidence has shown in their career paths.

Are they going to come back to relieve you at some point?

That conversation will happen in about five years.  But there is a possibility.  We have approached the subject, succession to the keys of the kingdom.  I would like to travel the country and parts of the world, experience the foods first-hand and meet people.  But if I ever retired, it would be semi-retirement.  If my kids took over, I would have to be available to them for a while.  We have to put everything down on paper.