American dream, immigrant's touch

By Michelle Schumacher, Times Correspondent
Published February 29, 2008

INTERBAY - Born the second of seven children in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan, Hani Shoubaki always knew he would come to America.

His construction foreman father and stay-at-home mother raised him with a vivid understanding of the value of money and, from an early age, Shoubaki believed that becoming successful meant relocating to the United States.

"When you're raising seven kids, there's never enough," he says.

At age 18, he made his dream a reality. He lived briefly in Houston, then moved to the Tampa Bay area in late 1978. He has been here ever since.

Initially, Shoubaki attended classes at St. Petersburg Junior College and the University of South Florida. As time went on, he was no longer able to afford school and ultimately left to pursue full-time employment in the restaurant industry.

He spent three years in the kitchen at Bern's Steak House doing prep work and cooking before moving on to Valencia Garden on Kennedy Boulevard.

He was also a regular customer at El Carmelo Spanish Restaurant. One day, Maria Lopez, an employee and the owner's niece, caught his eye.

Shoubaki had become fluent in English, but Maria, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1980, still spoke limited English.

Thankfully, Shoubaki had learned some Spanish from his co-workers and friends at Valencia Garden. When he met Maria, he fell "head over heels in love and couldn't wait to get married." Their wedding took place at El Carmelo soon after.

They both became American citizens on the same day in 1984.

Shoubaki had always wanted to own a business. "You only get rich working for yourself," he says. His new wife supported his dream. In 1985, after saving $5,000, the young couple also became business partners when they purchased the former Interbay Market located near Interbay Boulevard and MacDill Avenue.

Even back then, the neighborhood business was referred to by locals as the "Green Store," thanks to the building's painted green exterior.

Initially, Shoubaki and his wife were the only two employees, working grueling hours seven days a week.

In 1990, Shoubaki's brother, Mohammed, also relocated to Tampa. He intended to stay and help his brother and sister-in-law with the store for five years, but his plans changed when he fell in love, married and began building his own life here.

The original Interbay Market was built in 1942 at 2,000 square feet and operated as a convenience store and sandwich shop.

Over the years, the Shoubakis added onto the old building and bought adjacent land parcels as their finances permitted.

In 1998, the old store was demolished and the current 10,000-square-foot Interbay Meat Market was built in its place. Ever mindful of their customers' nickname for the store, they had the new structure painted green.

The store features a butcher shop and specializes in meat, offering ribeye, porterhouse, and 1 1/2- to 2-inch thick T-bones.

Influenced by his wife's Cuban heritage, the store also features traditional items such as roast pork, yellow rice and chicken, and Cuban sandwiches. With breakfast served throughout the day, the market's cafe con leche has become popular.

Many of the same customers have patronized the Green Store faithfully over the years, and Shoubaki, 48, has watched their children grow up.

Melissa Bodessa was raised in the local neighborhood and still patronizes the store nearly every day. Now 31, she has been a customer since she was 9, and the store even catered her first wedding in 1993. "It's like a family," she says. "Everybody knows everybody."

In addition to himself, his wife, and brother, other family members working at the store include Maria's mother, Elisa Lopez, and the Shoubakis' oldest son, Sam.

Shoubaki and his brother now split the day. Shoubaki manages the store from its 6 a.m. opening until midafternoon when Mohammed relieves him, overseeing things until closing time at 11 p.m.

The Green Store frequently caters events and meetings for MacDill Air Force Base. Multiple framed certificates of appreciation from divisions such as the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command hang on a wall near the checkout counter.

When Hurricane Charley rumbled through in 2004, Shoubaki heeded warnings from local authorities and closed his store.

Worried, however, that his neighborhood customers would not be able to get the supplies they needed, he reopened. A thank-you note from a grateful customer also hangs on the store's wall.

After 23 years in business, the market still takes up most of Shoubaki's time, but he doesn't mind.

"I am extremely happy, exactly where I want to be. I have a loving family and a prosperous business. ... I couldn't be any happier," he says.

A classic example of a man living the American dream, he adds, "Thank God for this country, and the people of this country, and South Tampa."

Hani Shoubaki

Neighborhood: Home is Ballast Point; business is in Interbay

Age: 48

Family: wife, Maria; daughter Helena, 21, currently serving in the U.S. Air Force; sons Sam, 23, a student at Hillsborough Community College; Hussein, 17, a senior at Bayshore Christian; Omar, 9, fourth-grader at Bayshore Christian.

Hobby: Playing soccer with an over-40 league; team is called Black Watch.

Favorite meal: From his store's meat counter, "a nice 10-ounce filet mignon, medium rare, marinated in Jack Daniels sauce."