After a decade away from Cincinnati, Kate Zaidan has returned to reshape her family business, Dean’s Mediterranean Imports
in Findlay Market. She’s not just selling fresh-roasted nuts to other local businesses, she’s staking her claim on the family brand.
Kate Zaidan grew up in Findlay Market
, years before you could grab a sandwich or waffle while you shopped and long before wall-to-wall weekend shoppers spilled out of the market house and onto West Elder Street, where her father’s store, Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, opened in 1986.
Zaidan, 31, who lived with her mother in Deer Park, remembers visiting her father at the store in the early days with her two younger sisters. She could steal away to the back room, climb atop massive bags of beans and rice, and settle in for a nap.
That was before she left town to attend Antioch College, where she majored in Environmental Studies. Before she moved to Philadelphia to work in air quality advocacy and then for a women’s international group. Before last year, when her father, Dean Zaidan, was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Though he is now in remission and happily back in the shop, Dean’s illness spurred Kate and her sisters to act quickly. “We were trying to make sure there was a contingency plan,” she says.
Her sisters Nadia, 30, and Ann, 27, also grew up in and around Dean’s, but neither felt the pull of the family business like Kate. “I really wanted it to stay in the family and I really wanted to be involved,” she says.
Though she had a girlfriend from the East Coast and a great job in Philadelphia, in the end, the decision to come home was easy. “The longer I was away, the more I realized that if I stayed any longer in another city, I would plant more roots there,” she says. “I decided I wanted to plant roots here.”
Planting those roots in Findlay Market just made sense. After all, the store always felt like home, a place where the smell of freshly mixed spices and roasted nuts signaled comfort and family and history. Her grandmother, who lived with the family in Cincinnati for a time, shared her recipes for hummus, tabouleh and other Middle East staples that are still made and sold at Dean’s.
“I love Findlay Market,” she says. “I love that history of family businesses.”
Her father’s entrepreneurial story started out of the frustration of an immigrant dietician from Lebanon who wanted to buy food from his homeland, including nuts, in bulk. When Dean Zaidan couldn’t find a local source, he decided to become one.
Fresh products were key. He even roasted his own nuts in the back room of the Findlay space.
But opening a new store required money, so Dean took his hand-roasted nuts on the road and sold them to local bars.
“He was walking down the streets, trying to sell the nuts,” says Daniel Thomas, owner of Hap’s Irish Pub in Hyde Park, one of Dean’s first customers nearly 30 years ago.
Once Dean raised enough money to open the store and his Findlay retail business “mushroomed,” he had to let the nut-selling business go. Until Kate moved back.
Dean suggested she learn the business the same way he did—by selling nuts to a new generation of customers around the city.
“It’s a good way for her to learn the ins and outs,” says Dean, 57. “We’re spreading our wings.”
So Kate developed packaging for fresh-roasted cashews, pistachios and mixed nuts, and started selling much as her father did, with small bars. “No one is going to them, asking if they need anything,” she says. “They get glossed over. It’s a good match because we’re small and they’re small.”
She sells to Fries Café in Clifton, to Madonna’s downtown, Murphy’s in Clifton, Northside Tavern and Ginger’s Bar in Northside and Café Barista and Kitty’s Coffee downtown, among dozens of other locales. And, of course, she sells to Hap's.
"You have to satisfy your customers," says Thomas, who notes his regulars' obsession with pistachios. "People are fascinated—they just love them."
At 5-foot, 3-inches, with short, curly dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, Zaidan has learned to handle early afternoon drinkers and eccentric business owners. She enjoys the challenge of building the business, relationships and the Dean's brand, all the while staking out a place of her own within it.
It wasn’t long before Kate found ways to expand her menu of products. She had more than 100 bars, coffee shops and corner stores on her customer list when she created Cajun Cashews.
“I’d really like to explore different flavors and mixes,” she says. “I’d like to do some with a little bit of sweetness.”
She can try new ideas at the shop—like her rosemary red pepper cashews—and if they sell, offer them to customers outside of Findlay. “The store gives us a great place to experiment,” she says.
Kate notes she’s not the only one experimenting at Dean’s. “We get a lot of second and third-generation Middle Eastern folks who remember recipes their grandmas used to make,” she says. They travel to Dean’s for bulgar wheat to make kibbeh and may take home some of the Zaiban family recipes, too.
“I think it’s neat to see people keeping traditions alive, even though it might be one generation removed,” Kate says.
She’s inherited her father’s well-known ability to offer advice on ingredients and spices to customers, suggesting time-tested blends of fresh flavors for ribs and poultry as she answers questions about products. Perhaps because she knows that the 60-plus varieties of olive oils, the bulk nuts and spices and crowded aisles filled with foreign names can be overwhelming, an encouraging smile never leaves her face.
Moving back to Cincinnati has given her a new perspective on the city where she grew up. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she admits. “It’s been fantastic.”
From Washington Park to Findlay Market, the changes impress her. “The people who are in Cincinnati care about it a lot and really are invested in seeing it as a thriving and healthy place. I love that.”
She sees both a philosophical and generational shift since she last lived in Ohio. “The people who are my age who stay in Cincinnati are here for the long haul,” she says. “They’re committed to the city in a way that is really refreshing and wonderful.”