El Harissa Opens at Last
North African food at Maple-Miller Plaza
by Sally Mitani
A year ago, Susan Thomas and Khaled Houamed said they would shortly be opening their El Harissa Market Cafe in Maple-Miller Plaza. Finally, they've achieved liftoff: the gelato counter opened in October, followed a few weeks later by a deli case with a respectable array including hummus, marinated olives, carrot dip, mujadara, and soups, with more to come. Harissa is a North African paste of olive oil, red peppers, and spices, and figures in many of the items behind the counter of what will eventually be both a restaurant and a market. Right now, it's mainly a deli case with seating.
The pair are both new to the food business, and it shows. Houamed, originally from Tunisia, is a pharmacologist, neurobiologist, and CEO of his own biotech company but was reluctant to sell a customer some roasted vegetables in the display case: "I'm unhappy with the way the parsnips came out--they are a bit woody. I want you to understand that," he fusses. Thomas confides that she was flummoxed when an employee called in sick--though a teacher for thirty years, "somehow it never occurred to me that my staff might get sick," she laughs.
Their lack of experience in the rough and tumble day-to-day business of retail is probably the main reason it took them over a year to get their shop open. Susan says the specific stumbling block had to do with how to license a space that was both a market and a restaurant--with the former being covered by Michigan Department of Agriculture rules and the latter by the Washtenaw County health department. It didn't help that their kitchen is not connected--prepared food has to be carried through an alleyway.
El Harissa's has attracted the attention of the organic and sustainable-minded Selma Cafe crowd. On this particular day, farmer Salomon Jost, in a jaunty Irish tweed cap and wrapped in several kinds of plaid, was drinking tea and working on his laptop--he had been making some stops
around town marketing his organic chicken. Meanwhile, Susan Todoroff from nearby Juicy Kitchen dashed in to discuss an event she was catering.
At the moment, most of El Harissa's 2,000 square feet is bare--that's the market part, where Khaled's next project is bringing in fair trade food and crafts from Tunisia. Susan says the maket will also be stocked with "local produce and the kind of groceries we use in our cooking. So, for instance, if someone wants to make a couscous at home, they will be able to buy all the ingredients here." And even farther down the road, Susan and Khaled eventually hope to have a restaurant kitchen on site and cook food to order.
El Harissa Market Cafe, 1516 N. Maple (Maple-Miller Plaza), 585-0686. Daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. elharissa.com
[Originally published in December, 2013.]