One by one, the seats around Dean Zaidan’s dinner table fill in his apartment above Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, the specialty shop he opened at Findlay Market 34 years ago. Dean is hosting a family dinner, but it’s his eldest daughter, Kate Zaidan, who has assembled the troops on this rainy Saturday night.
When Dean’s opened in 1985, it mainly sold roasted nuts, continuing a Zaidan family tradition originating from their homeland of Lebanon. If you’ve been in Dean’s lately, you know that’s changed. The shelves are now packed with staples and luxury items from across the Mediterranean region. During peak sales around the winter holidays, the store offers almost 8,000 different items sardined into a 900-square-foot shop.
“I like the store to be colorful,” says Kate, who became owner in 2018. “My best description is it’s kind of like a treasure hunt.” There’s a flow to the inventory and the people who shop there, particularly on a busy Saturday or Sunday, she says. “It feels like a crowded marketplace. It’s got the energy and the buzz of a souk. That’s what I wanted here, to have that kind of aliveness.”
As far back as she can remember, Kate thought one day she would run Dean’s. She hadn’t guessed it would be at age 37. She’d created a life in Philadelphia as a community organizer, and then, in 2010, her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Kate returned to Cincinnati to be near him but also to make sure the store stayed open, because it was more than a store—it was her heritage. With an energy her two sisters liken to the Energizer bunny, Kate committed herself to Dean’s.
Her dad beat cancer, or we wouldn’t be seated around his table about to share a delicious meal on this rainy night. Platters are passed around. Fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad with toasted pita, romaine lettuce, and mixed vegetables in a lemon, garlic, and sumac dressing. Fatteh, a dish of chickpeas, dill yogurt, and ground beef known as hashweh, topped with toasted pine nuts. But there’s also homemade mac and cheese and fried chicken at the table, and neighbors from another family.
The dinner, truth be told, is both a metaphor for Kate’s life and a manifestation of her vision for the shop.
Dean doesn’t really talk about it much, but when he was 18 his mother ordered him to leave Lebanon. It was the 1970s, and the civil war was ramping up. Dean came home from the movies one night and described a gun fight he’d just witnessed in the street—the last straw for his mother, Sania. She told her only son he must find work in another country for his own safety. She may have been right—an estimated 150,000 people died in the war over 15 years. He was one of approximately a million Lebanese who fled.
Dean moved to Oman, where he worked in the dietary department of a hospital. That’s where he met Cheryl Frey, a young woman from Cincinnati working for the Peace Corps. They fell in love and moved briefly to Detroit, where Dean had family, but decided to settle in Cincinnati, where Cheryl grew up, to raise daughters Kate, Ann, and Nadia.
Let’s just say the Zaidans weren’t like most kids in Deer Park. Lunchtime always reminded them of that, says Ann, as she chops romaine for the fattoush. When she and her sisters pulled Lebanese dishes from their lunchboxes, the kids around them munched on peanut butter and jelly. Their childhood was a big mix of cultures. Their grandmother—Sania eventually joined Dean in the U.S. to get help with some health issues and to be near her children—taught Kate to cook Lebanese food. But the girls never learned Arabic. They communicated through food. Their “teta,” an Arabic word for grandmother, made great french fries—American for sure, until she wrapped them in flatbread like a gyro. At the store in Over-the-Rhine, the girls got acquainted with the urban environment and met customers from all sorts of backgrounds. Kate acquired a strong appreciation for food and a curiosity for people.
When she returned to OTR after her dad’s cancer diagnosis, Kate set out to be a part of the community, not just a shopkeep. “I just knew I really wanted to develop deep roots here in this neighborhood,” she says. “It became really important to me to know the neighborhood and know the people who live here.”
If you pop into the shop, there’s a good chance you’ll find one of the chatty Zaidan sisters, or Dean himself, or some assortment of the four there, ready to serve you. Despite a few scary setbacks, Dean is in good health these days, in remission for seven years. “Sometimes I’m afraid we’re too chatty,” Kate jokes. But what she wants to create is a welcoming, nonjudgmental space, where customers feel encouraged to share their food and travel stories and talk about cooking and culture.
“What she does is show genuine interest in people,” says Kate’s wife, Karen Zaino. “She would come home from work and tell me stories about the people she interacted with that day, or the person she now sees every Saturday. She has actual interest in them, not only as her customers or friends but as people with lives and stories of their own.”
Back in Dean’s kitchen, Ann and Nadia are laughing their wonderfully contagious laughs. One recalls the time their aunties came down from the Detroit area and neighbors called the cops because they were smoking a hookah in the backyard. An aunt handed the shisha to a bewildered cop, explaining it was just flavored tobacco. “A lot of times, I think we just tried to be white girls, but we never really were,” Ann says.
Of the three, Kate always identified most strongly with their Lebanese heritage, her sisters say. Kate jokes that she’s trying to bring the Mediterranean back into Dean’s Mediterranean. She’s responsible for introducing a carryout menu of prepared foods a few years ago. Got the hankering for falafel? You can order it and pick it up at Dean’s or have it delivered.
Kate wasn’t always so intent on embracing her heritage. “We tried to assimilate—my dad wanted us to, he didn’t want us to be different.” That changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when Kate was studying at Antioch College. “It’s when I really realized I’m not the same as everybody else,” she says. “After that moment, I decided I wanted to be intentional about getting connected to my culture.” Kate moved to Philadelphia that year for a co-op through Antioch. She worked for a student-led environmental organization and spun it into a nine-year stint as a community organizer. She enjoyed the work, but often felt she was spinning her wheels. Kate had a strong sense that she could make a bigger difference in the world in her own little corner of it—the store.
Dinner on that Saturday is proof she’s right. Kate enters her father’s kitchen with 10-year-old Iesha is in tow. They’ve been downstairs helping Iesha’s mother, Laura Dodds, make the fried chicken and mac and cheese. Ann and Nadia are talking about how people often misidentify them. “We get everything,” Nadia says. “People sometimes talk to me in Spanish,” Ann adds. “Oh yeah, I get Mexican allllll the time,” Kate says. The sisters don’t really mind. They don’t judge others for misjudging them. It’s not that identity is unimportant. It’s just that the Zaidans aren’t purists, Kate says, since they’re Lebanese American for starters.
Kate once thought about legally changing her name to Katba, the great-grandmother for whom she was named. “Ultimately, I didn’t,” she says. “I was sort of like I don’t want to throw away any parts of myself. I’m a whole person with a complicated life experience, and I want to honor where I come from.”
“Kate is a values-driven person,” says her best friend in Philadelphia, Mariko Franz. “I know she’s not at the store to make a fortune, but to keep her history alive.” And other people’s history, too. A couple of years ago, Kate launched Stir, a cooking club that hosts classes and dinner parties to bring together segments of the community from various cultural backgrounds. She did a class on dumplings to show how every culture has its own version, for instance, and held a Lebanese dinner, where her father shared his immigrant story.
“I see it as the store’s social arm, its engagement arm,” Kate says. Stir got started with a grant from People’s Liberty, allowing her to do a series of web videos, including one on dumplings and another on creating “healthy, cheap, and fast” food. (The next Stir event will focus on food and culture from Afghanistan on June 28 at Ascension & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Wyoming; sign up at stircookingclub.com.)
Her friend Mariko knows Kate has found her calling. “She’s kind of a reluctant leader, but it’s part of what makes her a great leader. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention,” Mariko says. “When she first told me she won a grant and was doing these cooking classes, I thought it was cool, but then I saw some of the videos and was thrilled by how it shows our common humanity.”
We’re chitchatting around a prep table in Dean’s kitchen before dinner. Everyone has a job. Dean sprinkles toasted pine nuts on the fatteh, and Nadia sets the table. Food arrives from downstairs.
Kate loves her family’s closeness—it’s one of her favorite things about being Lebanese. “There is a cultural element to family that, when you decide you are a family, that is where your loyalties lie,” she says. “It’s the primary connection in your life.”
She doesn’t know how anyone runs a business without a supportive spouse and loyal sisters; a dad, who is her failsafe; and a mother, who is both a cheerleader and her inspiration. Kate attributes her values-driven approach to life to her mother Cheryl, who insisted her daughters get a Catholic education. “My biggest takeaway from it was the notion of human dignity. It was the stories of the Good Samaritan and the loaves and fishes that stuck with me,” Kate says. “I’ve been inspired by the stories of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement throughout my life.”
Kate has a “big tent philosophy,” says her wife Karen, meaning she believes a society works best when its members are allowed and encouraged to hold diverse beliefs and opinions. That’s why she became a community organizer in Philadelphia. It’s why she created Stir. And it’s the community she’s trying to build through Dean’s.
It informs her definition of family, too, which now includes the Dodds. It began about five years ago, when Laura’s son Marquan started hanging around Findlay Market at age 10. “He was part of a little crew of kiddos who would play football in the evenings at the market,” Kate says. “They would want $2 or a bag of chips to wash the windows or put stock away.”
Marquan started hanging out more and more, and a kind of mentorship formed between Kate and him. When he was bored after school or in the summers, Kate gave him odd jobs. Marquan showed interest in cooking, so she talked to him about ingredients in the store and showed him some cooking techniques. “He was a neat kid,” Kate says.
Kate was talking one day about her garden at her and Karen’s home in Northside, and Marquan asked if he could see it. “Then I had to reach out to his mom, ’cause, OK, you are a random child,” Kate says, chuckling. Laura gave her permission—she appreciated that Marquan was staying busy doing positive things and that Karen, a high school English teacher, could help him with his homework. Friendships formed between Laura, Kate, and Karen. Laura now works at the shop as an administrative assistant, and Kate is getting to know Marquan’s sisters, including Iesha and 13-year-old De’shawna. “They’re a big part of my life,” Kate says.
Karen wants to be clear they didn’t “save” Marquan, who is now 14 and attends Taft High School. “He was fine before we met him,” she says. “He’s happy and loved, but it allows us to participate in watching someone grow and helping him be happy in the world.”
Kate and Karen know the relationship between these two families—a lesbian couple and a black family from the neighborhood—might seem strange, but is it? “It only works when we’re committed to deeper relationships that are rooted in trust,” Kate says.
We’re sitting around Dean’s dinner table, eating our fattoush, fatteh, fried chicken, and mac and cheese. The conversation turns to ground cherries—Dean asks if everyone has tried them. It’s a fruit that can grow around Cincinnati and is found at the farmers’ market at Findlay when they’re in season. Sometimes called gooseberries or husk cherries, they look like tomatillos—little green fruit that grow inside a thin husk. But instead of being tart, a ripened ground cherry is sweet. “They taste like pineapple,” Dean says.
Ground cherries come up because they also grow in Lebanon, and this thread of our dinner conversation begins when someone remembers how Teta Sania would forage for stuff. She used to pick apples from a tree in front of an Arby’s, and ask neighbors if she could harvest the dandelion greens from their yards. Isn’t it great, we all agree, that foraging and local foods are again in vogue. Sania passed away while Kate was in high school, but her presence is still strongly felt in this room.
The dinner is like any other family gathering, in a lot of ways. The adults laugh and drink wine and stew on issues affecting their community, like construction of the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium in the West End and how, even though there’s so much more for adults to do in OTR, the options really haven’t grown for neighborhood kids like Marquan, De’shawna, and Iesha. Laura is still afraid every time the kids walk to school. Like any family dinner, the Zaidan sisters share inside jokes, bursting into giggles for seemingly no reason.
Not everyone can be at the table that night. Marquan, who usually helps cook, worked in the afternoon at the fish shop next door and is now with some friends on a Saturday night. Karen recently moved to New York to pursue a Ph.D. from the Urban Education program at the City University of New York—a dream of hers, which Kate supports.
Still, they all make Dean’s Mediterranean Imports possible, Kate says. Without them, her goals—as simple as helping a customer create the perfect cheese plate and as complex as creating common ground between cultures—couldn’t be realized. It seems fitting that on this night in her father’s apartment, as everyone eats from both cuisines, there’s only one dish scooped onto every plate: the very American mac and cheese.