Salem's Market and Grill opens Forbes and Beeler location

The ground floor of Forbes Beeler Apartments is now home to Carnegie Mellon’s first grocery store: Scotty's Market. The grocery store stocks hundreds of items, selling at what students describe as affordable prices. Serving fresh, serving local, and serving the community, Scotty’s is a campus food revolution.

“This has to be by far one of the best dining locations on campus,” said sophomore Zoe Botta on opening day, Aug. 23. She was impressed by “the range of food, prices, and variety of options of what you can get — and the staff’s friendliness and ability to adapt to the students.”

The grocery is operated by Pittsburgh stalwart Salem’s Market and Grill, which has been selling halal meats and whole foods in the city for over four decades. Owner and CEO Abdullah Salem has long been dedicated to foodservice and is continuing his family’s tradition of bringing healthy food to those who need it.

“The mission is to ensure that the community always has access to healthy fresh foods,” Salem said. Making good food accessible, he said, has been the focus since the company’s foundation.

The Story of Salem’s
Salem’s parents Massaud Salem and Samia Abdel-Atti arrived in Oakland from Libya in 1977 to study at the University of Pittsburgh. Bringing with them their Muslim tradition and dietary customs, they quickly realized the lack of halal options in the city and struggled to find meat they could eat. The only grocery stores were miles away, largely inaccessible to Pitt students.

With an abundance of international students, Pitt’s campus was wanting a store with quality and specialty foods. Salem’s father filled that need. With no halal groceries for purchase anywhere, he resorted to buying fresh meats from a kosher butcher and deli in Squirrel Hill.

“He had never come to a place where all the meat was prepackaged,” Salem said. Pittsburgh, his father discovered, was bereft of not only halal food, but healthy meat altogether.

With his deli purchases, Massaud Salem opened a small market selling meat to students and yinzers alike, renting out the back half of an Indian grocery on Atwood Street. That was in 1981; demand grew from that point on.

The store began offering affordable plates of home-cooked chicken and lamb with rice as a way to use up leftovers. His father was selling “not for profit, just as a service,” Salem said, with the primary goal of “helping the community.”

As one of the only fresh meat shops in Oakland at the time, Salem said, “people would come for donations.” Massaud’s philosophy was to “never say no to a hungry person,” which has been the business’ way since its inception. Still today, Salem says, he’ll never turn a hungry person away.

“My dad entered into this business without a financial motive, just [doing it] as a service to keep himself busy” while at school, Salem said. “His philosophy was, it's not just our corporate but it's our moral and ethical duty to support the community that serves us. If our community thrives, we will thrive.”

At the same time his father’s store was gaining steam, Salem said, Pittsburgh was undergoing a shift in its retail landscape. From the variety of family vendors which once thrived, bigger grocery stores began to dominate, and the little produce stands around the city were shuttered.

Salem’s was “kind of the last small business,” he said, one of the only vendors in the city selling “fresh, local, all-natural Pennsylvania raised and processed meat.” To meet its halal guidelines, Salem’s purchased live animals from local farms, shipped to their own processing house south of the city, and slaughtered everything to be sold in-store. To this day, all animals are delivered whole-carcass and cut for retail and kitchen use by Salem’s butchers.

“When you buy a lamb curry meal from us, that's not a frozen Australian piece of meat, that's a local lamb that we purchased,” Salem said. “When you buy ground beef or a burger from us, that's a local entire cow that we purchased live, that we deboned, that we processed fresh.”

In short, he said, Salem’s has been doing farm-to-table since before it was popular. The idea of processing meat, adding dyes, fillers, allergens and cheap oils, was foreign to them. Drawing on the local area for goods and produce was the natural option.

Oakland was growing fast in the early days of Salem’s Market. Students were coming in droves from overseas and blending in Pittsburgh’s “big melting pot," Salem said. Those international students were “looking for something that makes them feel like back home, and they found Salem’s as that sort of home,” he explained.

“We have always said since the beginning, we're the closest thing to back home no matter where you're from,” Salem said.

In aiming to create a sense of home, Salem’s recognizes the needs of its international customers. The store imports products like a particular Eastern European seltzer water, and specific brands from Turkey, India, Pakistan, and beyond. Salem said he’s building out in all directions to meet demand, taking buyer input in stride.

Salem’s at Scotty's has hung a suggestion chalkboard for just that purpose. The board hangs in a corner of the store behind the checkout, near where Dining Services hopes to operate GrubHub grocery pickup in the future. Salem invites shoppers to write a list of products they see missing from the store, and he’ll speak with his distributor about stocking them. From the list, Salem’s has already added dragon fruit, papayas, and several other items.

“If we don't sell what customers want,” Salem said, “then what are we doing here?”

Customer reactions to Salem’s Market and Grill have been chiefly positive, with students appreciating the affordability and thoughtfulness of the local business.

“I’m very happy the prices are not crazy and that they genuinely want to hear community input,” said junior Sara Riyad on opening day. Riyad said she’s also pleased to see Salem’s in particular as the grocery vendor, a store with a respectable goal making a “good addition” to campus.

“Knowing the family that owns Salem’s,” Riyad said, “they give back to the community.” She imagined the store will “make people want to venture out more and see the culture Pittsburgh has,” which benefits the city as a whole.

“Abdullah’s father … helped build the diversity of the Pittsburgh community, certainly as it pertains to food,” said Joe Beaman, Director of Dining Services at Carnegie Mellon. The story of Salem’s, he said, is remarkable in city history.

Salem’s aims to localize all students’ shopping needs, stocking everything from grocery staples to foreign imports, cleaning products and room essentials. Having not only an array of goods but also a restaurant, “tying it all together in one location with one shared staff,” Salem said, is his recipe for success.

“I think it’s really cool seeing a fully stocked market on campus,” said senior Yosef Alsuhaibani. “I also like that there’s Arab ingredients and Arab foods.”

Salem’s prices its goods like “a grocery store, not convenience store,” Salem said. “A mix of popular international and conventional products, tied with cooked food, is a big growth recipe for the business moving forward,” Salem said.

Students are steadily taking notice. On opening day, the excitement in the store was palpable. A lunchtime crowd remarked on the Market’s apparent quality, accessibility, and friendliness.

“We're small and we recognize that we're short on a lot of stuff, but what we can do is do great service,” Salem said. “You will see smiling faces and we will genuinely care about how we can better serve you.”

Salem’s business approach, transferring items between sections, keeps products fresh and pricing aggressive, he said. The kitchen, once an outlet for using up extra meat, now supports the rest of the store in sales. Labor is also shared between the kitchen and deli: the same butchers cut meat for the deli and the prepared meals.

“We think there's a big line of growth here, that what we're doing is extremely special, and it's much different than what anybody else is doing,” Salem said.

The Market partners with local growers for much of its produce, two such being an Amish farm and the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh co-op. As a grassroots institution long ingrained in the Pittsburgh community, Salem’s strives to elevate small businesses as the store grows.

“We have 30 or 40 local vendors, more than half of which are [minority-owned],” Salem said. The store stocks products from Pittsburgh establishments, like baked goods from Darnella Darling Delights and homemade gelato from Mercurio’s. With the exposure Salem’s gets, the store can spread success around. Salem explained, “if we're all doing good together, that's where society needs to be.”

Selecting Salem’s Market and Grill
Part of selecting new dining locations on campus involves a competitive bid process, explained Joe Beaman, Director of Dining Services at Carnegie Mellon. Constituents from across the university, including staff, Graduate Student Assembly members, and undergraduates on the Dining Student Advisory Committee, are invited to on-site presentations by vendor finalists.

Dining began planning for a grocery store at Forbes Beeler Apartments several years ago, when Student Affairs decided to put up the new upperclassmen housing, Beaman said. To choose who would operate the market, Dining assembled 16 students from all academic stages to participate in the review process.

“We were really excited to have a diverse group of students to help us select a partner that would be in the grocery store for years to come,” Beaman said.

To receive bids, the Dining team sent requests for proposal to an array of local and national partners, Beaman said. Salem’s Market and Grill responded and remained a finalist throughout the vetting process.

Vendor presentations consist of student groups spending a few hours sampling the seller’s products and getting to know “who they are and what they represent,” Beaman said. Students can preview the menu and pricing examples for an idea of what the vendor would bring to the table. De Fer Coffee and Tea, a new campus partner which began operating last year in Hunt Library, was selected through the same bid and student review process.

After the evaluation period for Scotty’s Market, Salem’s was students’ “overwhelming favorite,” Beaman said, and opened its doors and kitchen to the community last month.

Salem said he believes Carnegie Mellon shares an equal mission with his business and will be a strong partner in “serving the right community,” one that needs healthy groceries and fresh halal food. “We wanted to find the most diverse area where we could fit in,” Salem said. Developing on Forbes “seemed like the right project.”

Salem carries on the business that his father started in Oakland more than 40 years ago. The oldest of five children, “somebody had to sacrifice for the family,” Salem said. That responsibility fell to Salem, but it’s a mantle he was more than happy to take up.

Over the store’s first weeks of operation since its soft open in August, Salem worked every day, open to close. Getting the start right was vital, he said.

“I want to ensure that I meet every single customer personally, that they see me, and I get an idea of what's working” and what can be improved, Salem explained, finding the “pain points” for staff and customers.

The hard work, however, is a labor of love. For Salem, “what brings me the most pleasure is when I look out and see the dining room and see people” who would never have met otherwise, interacting over shared food.

Today, Salem said, “The one thing we're not arguing about is what food tastes good." Being a part of something so positive, he said, is the true joy of the job. “I'll keep doing it until I die.”

Salem's work in the city has not gone unnoticed. For his dedication to serving the community, July 17 is now officially Abdullah Salem day, recognizing his fierce love of serving it up fresh.