For the many customers who have grown up with Droubi’s Mediterranean Bakery & Deli, a midday visit to the 7333 Hillcroft Ave. location provides the same look and feel as it has over its four decades.

In a corner of the spacious market, owner Abdo Joseph “AJ’ Droubi carves garlic and marjoram-seasoned meat off the vertical roaster for beef shawarmas and lamb gyros. Vegan falafel and lamb shank plates also are on the lunchtime menu.

At the front entrance, next to the pastry case stocked with Lebanese  shortbreads, maamoul and date cookies, Droubi’s wife Sharon – always stylishly dressed in colorful print dresses and hats – serves as greeter and cashier.

Filling up the remainder of the cavernous, 18,900 sq ft. emporium are rows of spices, coffees, fresh-baked breads and cooking oils, as well as canned and packaged foods from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, Mexico,  Argentina and Peru.

On the grocery shelves are a half dozen feta cheeses along with Greek and Italian hasseri cheese, Armenian string cheese, and three varieties of halloumi cheese from Cyprus.

Sharon & AJ, now & before

Every week, hot Arabic bread — sans bleach or chemicals – still marches down a conveyer track, from what is billed as largest oven in Houston, to be served hot at the grill and packaged for the grocery.

Droubi, the son of a Lebanese Catholic family, takes orders and chats with lunchtime customers in English, Arabic and Spanish.

Over the years, the Mediterranean grocery and grill has employed an  Israeli chef, a Palestinian cook, a Russian driver and Mexican,  Salvadoran, Syrian, Lebanese and Greek workers in various positions.

At 83, AJ Droubi appears in constant motion, completing tasks throughout  the store. When he is not taking orders and visiting with customers, he has time to reflect on the amazing odyssey to Houston that he and his brother took to establish a landmark business in Gulfton.

It all began 45 years ago on a boat trip from Lebanon.

The son of parents who emigrated to Lebanon from their native Syria to escape nomadic wars and religious persecution, Droubi grew up in Zahlé, a scenic mountain town in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, about 35 miles from Beirut.

AJ says he grew up in a happy home with parents who could not read or write but who built a successful bakery, pastry and candy business.

“My father and mother would get up at 2 a.m. and they would bake pita bread,”  AJ said. “The town was famous for it.”

The couple reared another generation of bakers in a large, comfortable home and they encouraged their son, Abdo Joseph, to  get a college education: “My father could not read or write but he loved education and knew it was  important.”

AJ attended Good Shepherd College in Beirut and had a dream of becoming a doctor. When he read an article about Houston’s Michael DeBakey, the son of  Lebanese emigrants in America, who was already recognized as one of  the most famous heart surgeons in the world, his sights were set on  coming to Houston.

“I didn’t know him but I came here because of him,” AJ said.

While he passed his country’s national exam and applied to U.S. colleges, his parents didn’t want him to leave. They knew he would have trouble tolerating an ocean voyage or airplane flight since he got queasy just riding around Zahlé in a car.

‘‘You throw up walking by a garage,” his father joked. “What is going to  happen to you on a boat?”

But his brothers stood up for him and implored their dad to “let him go.”

So after a month-long journey, by boat from Beirut to Italy, across  the Atlantic on an ocean liner and then a three-day bus ride to Texas, AJ arrived in Houston in 1964.

He earned undergraduate and masters degrees in microbiology from the University of Houston.  As a microbiologist, he worked for several hospitals and at a clinic that  treated tuberculosis patients. He became expert in treating the disease and was allowed to teach courses on treatments to visiting physicians.

He continued to work toward completing the courses necessary for acceptance to medical school — despite the obstacles face by foreign students at the time.

But around that time, his older brother Fayez, a professional baker, was struggling with his business start-up in Boston.  So AJ took a leave of absence from his clinic work to help his brother launch a business in Houston.

AJ never returned to the medical field.

The brothers launched their Middle Eastern bakery on Hillcroft in 1979.

While his brother only wanted to bake and sell pita bread, AJ felt they  would have to offer a lot more to customers in Houston to be successful: “My vision was a store for the American shopper who likes to come to a big, well-lighted store with a high ceiling, and not a small and dingy looking store without shopping carts.”

So the decision was made to have a bakery and grocery.

AJ said he selected the location after noting from a Houston phone book that a large number of people with Arabic names were living in the Gulfton neighborhood.

Most of their customers in the 1980s were international visitors to the city. His brother was alarmed that their daily income during their first month was $13. But AJ said they  had to be patient, and looking back, he said, the business turned out to be almost an immediate success: “We started with sandwiches and all kinds of Mediterranean foods. People had to wait in line for the sandwiches.”

The brothers hired a chef who had cooked for five presidents of Lebanon: “We learned a lot of stuff from him. We supplied the food that the Lebanese wives didn’t want to have to cook but wanted to eat.”

The original bakery location was a former gas station site on Hillcroft that had been vacant for two years. In 1980 the brothers purchased the larger adjacent property at 7333 Hillcroft and the 18,900 sq. ft. flagship store that would house a bakery, grocery, grill and halal meat market.

It would eventually also include a warehouse for the shipment of  Mediterranean foods to businesses and institutions throughout Houston and the region.

With the addition of a warehouse space, Droubi’s became a distributor of Middle East foods to a host of clients in Houston, including well-known supermarket chains, Aramco America’s Houston headquarters and Rice University.

The brothers also became direct importers of Middle Eastern food. They later added shipments from Europe and South America.

In the mid-1980s the family bought out a competitor at 3223 Hillcroft, which became another outlet for its products. They opened stores on Kirby Drive at Main Street and in Sugar Land, too.

In its heyday in the 1980s the company produced up to 60,000 loaves of pita bread that were sold at five Droubi’s  locations around Houston.

Subsequent world events — such as 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and COVID – interrupted food imports, putting more pressure on the family chain’s foods they made here to produce profits.

After his brother Fayez retired with  health issues — he died last year —  AJ, joined by his wife and daughter Christine returned to the family’s roots at the flagship store.

“We still have the grill and the groceries – Middle East imported foods – and we still bake bread,”  AJ said. “That is what I want. That is where the higher percentage of profits come from. We bake the bread today only for us. We come in here on Sunday and bake a couple of hundred loaves, one  twentieth of what we once did.”

AJ is thinking of making a shift in his packaged and fresh-made foods now that
his customer base has changed over the years from 90 percent Arab immigrants to 75 to 80 percent Hispanic immigrants.

He get wholesale products from Goya, the big Hispanic foods producer, “and it doesn’t matter if Fiesta makes a 30 cents profit and I only make a 25 cents profit, I am still making money.”

A reimagining would mean adding Mexican dishes to the grill menu, more candies and sweets and pricing that undercuts some competitors. It helps that he still speaks Spanish.

On the other hand, AJ thinks about traveling the world with Sharon. They met in the early 1980s at a church reception celebrating Lebanese Independence Day.

One of her uncles was Michael DeBakey, the surgeon whose Internationally known  success had inspired AJ to start a new life in Houston.

— by Phil Shook

— photos by Christina Autry  @houstonsgotspice and Droubi’s