Visiting Karaky Grocery Store is unlike any other shopping experience you’ll find in Whitehorse. The family-owned business is run by Basem and Kaitlin Alrawashdeh, who opened the store in the former Greyhound station on Second Avenue last year. In the midst of the significant challenges of opening a new business, and the birth of their baby in January, the couple are bringing Yukoners an endless variety of international foods.
Karaky is a family business, and the couple support one another through the ups and downs. They also have their son, their “little guy,” who has a playpen for on-site visits while his parents are running the shop. The grocery has a laid-back, friendly vibe that encourages a slow saunter down the aisles and a friendly chat at the check-out as part of the shopping excursion.
Karaky is named after the small town in Jordan where Basem grew up in a business-oriented family. When he moved to Canada four years ago, he brought with him a vision of owning a business of his own.
“He’s the brains behind Karaky,” Kaitlin says.
While Basem didn’t initially know what kind of business he wanted to open, Kaitlin says her husband is happy with his choice. It’s his mission to provide Yukoners with international foods they might not find anywhere else in town. The products come from many countries and represent a wide variety of cuisine – Middle Eastern, South Asian, European and Japanese to name a few. Some highlights from my first shopping trip included a large tub of halva from Turkey and some delicious ready meals from India which Kaitlin says are one of their most popular items.
“People come in and buy five, six, seven at a time,” she says.
Basem brings in foods that are requested by customers, many of whom are relative newcomers to the Yukon. Kaitlin says that her husband realized how much comfort people get when they have their favourite meals available.
For the Alrawashdeh family, Kaitlin says it’s always special when they sit down and have a Jordanian meal. For example, when Basem’s brother, who also lives in Whitehorse, recently returned from a trip to Jordan, they reminisced about home and their mom’s cooking.
“If you can go home and have a home-cooked meal that feels like home, there’s a lot of comfort in that,” Kaitlin says.
“Food sparks memories,” she adds. “And different stories come from that.”
Basem “really tries to find” the foods that invoke stories, whether they’re memories from faraway hometowns or from international travel. In order to do so, Basem deals with suppliers across Canada. He’s travelled to Edmonton, he’s been to BC, and he works with someone in Toronto to access products.
For these efforts, the Alrawashdehs are getting an appreciative reception from the community. Customers come not only from Whitehorse, but from other Yukon communities as well, including Carmacks, and Watson Lake. Kaitlin mentions folks from Dawson who call ahead of time and do a pre-order for pick-up when they’re in town.
The pre-order process will be made easier when the Karaky website gets launched in the future. In the meantime, customers can see new products, like baklava, teas, and spices, posted on Facebook and Instagram.
Along with his tenacity in sourcing foods, Basem is a friendly and easy-going presence behind the grocery counter. During my first shopping experience at Karaky, I accidently knocked a chocolate bar off the counter and into my shopping bag. When I hurriedly returned it to the counter, he placed it back into my bag, and added another without charging me for either.
“Basem is very personable,” Kaitlin affirms. She says that he has long chats with customers and shares their stories when he gets home from the grocery.
As popular as Karaky is, opening the business was not without its obstacles. One of those was of course COVID-19, but the Alrawashdehs were able to put the pandemic into perspective.
“I think Basem would also say that although [the pandemic] had its challenges, we’ve been okay,” Kaitlin says. “We’ve been able to navigate it.”
Another challenge for the couple was finding a suitable location for the business. It’s not easy to find commercial space in Whitehorse. Basem wanted a good location, so he worked hard to get the old Greyhound station. And once he had it, the space needed to be converted into a grocery store. When the contractor they’d hired to build shelves didn’t show up, Basem did the job himself, even though he’d never done carpentry before.
“Basem would never tell anyone that,” Kaitlin says. “I do, because I’m so proud of him. Whether it’s contractors or COVID or different things, he loves a challenge. For him it’s like, ‘You know what? This is just another challenge.’”
Kaitlin adds that, because Basem comes from a business-oriented family, he’s accustomed to working hard, and is well-equipped to deal with setbacks.
“You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”