Ghassan Warrayat pulls the lid off a blue tin, revealing perfect rows of small, round shortbread cookies, each topped with a single pistachio: graybeh, whose recipe is written in the 10th-century cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh. These ones are from Habibah, one of the oldest confectioners in Jordan. “These are as traditional as it gets,” says Ghassan. But old masters can afford to innovate—in the next tin are versions in different hues, delicately flavored with pistachio, coffee, or cocoa. As far as Ghassan knows, nobody has ever done flavored graybeh before: “I thought, what a beautiful idea!”
There was a time when importing quality ingredients from abroad meant whatever your uncle could cram in his suitcase on the flight over. Globalization may have changed things, but for Ghassan Warrayat and his brother Bassam, co-owners of the import and distribution company Green Land Food, delivering Middle Eastern delicacies to American tables is still that personal. “Our clients want to buy the authentic product,” Bassam says. “The one that reminds him of his childhood, when his mother used to make it.”
We’re sitting in Bassam’s office at Green Land HQ in Norcross, joined by the Warrayats’ sister Rana Obeidat, who owns a bakery in Braselton. The siblings sample the bounty, debating flavors and texture in what they call Arabizi, a lively blend of Arabic and English. The brothers took over the business from their father, Abdulla, who moved the family in the ’80s from Kuwait to Dalton and got his start exporting carpets, later moving into manufacturing. Business thrived—the king of Jordan attended a factory opening—and then sputtered as the Gulf Wars raged. When a friend in Georgia asked Abdulla to bring over some Middle Eastern food products on his next trip, he realized he’d found a promising new market.
Abdulla made his name with spices; when his sons took over, they expanded into olives, seeds, and sweets, building on their father’s Jordanian networks to establish the company’s export arm there. Having grown up on their mother’s Palestinian cooking, they knew what their neighbors were looking for. Client feedback refined the brand: “A lot of mothers’ opinions, a lot of grandmothers’ opinions,” Bassam says, smiling. “They know what they want.”
One thing they always want: olives. Bassam estimates Green Land is one of the biggest American importers of Middle Eastern olives. He spoons a few into a bowl. Picked early in the season from Roman trees in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere, they’re bright green and zesty in a light lemon brine. A hint of bitterness rounds out the flavor, which is how Palestinians prefer them. Olive importers obsess over finding the right grower, a relationship that can last decades. “The older the tree, the better,” says Ghassan. “These olives are now starting to become extremely good, because years and years have passed.” Olive trees, which can fruit for hundreds of years, are zealously protected across the Middle East. “You need a permit to cut an olive tree,” Bassam says. “And you likely won’t get it anyways. They’ll build the road around a tree!” And then there’s the olive oil: Traditional Middle Eastern olive oil differs from what you find on American shelves—it’s less filtered, with a more acidic taste.
The Warrayats also mix their own spice blends for popular dishes like maklouba and shawarma, and sell dozens of spices grown all over the world: cardamom and fennel, star anise and Aleppo pepper. In the warehouse, staff package dried sage into bags, infusing the room with a heady, sweet scent. Pallets of product are stacked near the door. In the Atlanta area, you can find Green Land’s products in places like Buford Highway Farmers Market and Jerusalem Bakery & Grill, but the company’s biggest markets are outside Georgia, in states with large Middle Eastern communities, like California and Michigan. Interest has grown elsewhere, too, and they’ve recently added clients in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. “They have Middle Eastern customers, so they incorporate it, and then you get new customers interested—” Bassam interrupts himself. “Do you like halva?” He grabs a box off the shelf to share.
One wall is given over entirely to za’atar, the classic Middle Eastern spice blend. “We can sell 500 pounds in a single order,” says Ghassan. Demand is high, but quality can be unpredictable: Green Land cut za’atar out of its inventory entirely for nearly two years while searching for a better source. When they found one, clients balked at the price—at first. “Today, if we charge double for it, they’ll still take it,” Bassam laughs. “People recognize us. They know we know what we’re doing.”
This article appears in our June 2023 issue.