May 6 2009 12:00 AM

Former restaurateur offers fresh deals on produce


If at first you don’t succeed, try produce.

After owning Sahara’s Middle Eastern restaurant for more than a decade, Hasan and Ahmad Elbast decided to become the suppliers of produce instead of the consumers. So Hasan opened Tom’s Greenland Farm Market, where Ahmad manages, on South Cedar Street at the location that previously housed Van Houghton’s, a longtime market in its own right.

Like its predecessor, Tom’s also dabbles in more than fruits and vegetables. A few groceries and some bulk food items have places in the establishment, and after next week, when flats of pansies, potted gardenias and dozens of other spring flowers arrive, the front of the store will transform the concrete of the city into an oasis of bucolic serenity.

Ahmad Elbast buys his wares wholesale up to three times a week from Detroit’s Eastern Market. After a decade in the restaurant business, he thought he knew a lot about buying produce. But he’s already learned some lessons. "When you buy stuff, you have to open every box almost,” Elbast said. “The first time I went [to Eastern Market], I bought $2,000 worth of stuff. I said, ’Give me this, give me that.’ I put it on my van, and when we opened it here, it was all bad. We threw it all away. It’s like when you first move into a neighborhood, you get robbed."

Despite the rocky start in February, Elbast is gearing up for an early season rush, when the place will bloom with spring colors. But what’s really eye-opening about Elbast’s enterprise the bargains. At Tom’s, when you buy organic produce, you won’t pay a nickel more than you would for nonorganic. "I don’t raise the price because it’s organic," Elbast said. "So far, when I’ve bought organic, it’s the same price as non-organic when I get the deals, so I’m not going to raise the price just because it’s organic."

Organic items in the store last week included boxes of baby spinach for $1.99, carrots for $1 a bunch and bananas, on special, for 39 cents a pound. Those prices beat even non-organic supermarket produce.

Elbast said he understands if there’s a markup when stores pay more for organic, but if they get deals, like he sometimes does, it’s another story. "It’s because if it’s organic, they think they should be charging you more, because it’s healthy," he said. "If they are buying it at the same price, I think they are ripping you off."

But Elbast’s penchant for value goes beyond the organic aisle. He works to make sure he’s not only competitive, but ahead of the competition. "I guarantee people that it is the cheapest in town, and I go around and ask for prices,” he said. “I make sure it is the cheapest price in town, and I make sure that it is a good product."

From apples, mangos and berries to citrus, leafy greens, herbs, garden vegetables and more, the options at Tom’s are abundant. Elbast also sells some chicken, bulk nuts and assorted sundries and canned goods a few grocery shelves.

The gregarious Elbast is spirited when talking about his business; the cadence of his speech quickens and sentences blend together when relating particularly significant anecdotes. He’s the type of guy who appears to remain perpetually sanguine, even with the pickiest customer. And if there’s a special request, Elbast said he’s happy to work with customers.

"Let’s say you want something and I don’t have it," he proposed. "If I can get it, I’ll go buy it for you. If it doesn’t sell, I won’t buy many, but I will buy one or two, so if that customer comes back, they can get it."

Tom’s Greenland Farm Market, 3824 S. Cedar St., Lansing, (517) 887-6570. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily in the off-season, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. in the summer.