The story of Select Gourmet Foods begins in the branches of a Tunisian fig orchard and twists through a 35-year, circuitous path to Kenmore
STORY BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY HILLARY MCMULLEN
Mohamed Souaiaia has an omnipresent smile, quick to turn into a laugh, and a tendency to speak quickly and get ahead of himself when he’s enthusiastic about something, which he nearly always is. He has the easy confidence of someone who’s good at what he does and knows it. What you might not realize when buying a perfect cut of Kobe beef or a pint of raw milk from his Kenmore wholesale meat shop is that its owner’s path is one of the most unlikely — and fascinating — you may ever hear.
Mohamed is Tunisian but was born in Algeria in 1954. The border between the two countries was in dispute throughout his childhood, and he and his family lived as refugees. The countryside where he grew up was dotted with land mines from decades of conflict, and his family was often deeply in poverty.
But though Mohamed’s childhood was far from perfect, he found happiness in the fields that his father tended as a shepherd and orchardist. He recalls a childhood spent perched in the trees, eating figs right off their branches. It was there that his passion for fresh produce bloomed.
When Souaiaia was young, independent Tunisian primary schools started enrolling their first students. He was a bright child and eager to learn, and the schools were open to all, but there was only one problem: the youngest students they’d admit were six-year-olds, and Mohamed was two years too young. But a mix-up with his birth certificate—his father was illiterate—helped Mohamed slip through the cracks, and he successfully posed as his older brother’s twin. He began school at only four years old.
He worked hard to keep up with the other children in his grade, who ranged in age from 6 to 10. Traditionally, Tunisian students take a test after sixth grade, and if they pass, they can begin high school. But the headmaster at Mohamed’s school, noticing that his students were a particularly bright group, decided to administer the test two years early. The class did so well that the government of Tunisia bent the rules for them. In 1964, Mohamed became a 10-year-old high schooler.
But he had to have a few more strokes of luck before his secondary education could actually begin. The school he was supposed to attend was a French-style boarding school, and the uniforms and other materials he needed were prohibitively expensive. Luckily for Mohamed, his classmate’s cousin was engaged to the high school’s head laundress, who helped him get a full set of uniforms — and her generosity didn’t stop there. The family took Mohamed in, letting him live in their overcrowded, one-bedroom apartment until he could get on his feet.
After a few years of high school, excelling in his classes and even becoming president of the English club, Mohamed made a connection that would change his life. A Peace Corps member, who turned out to be part of Seattle’s well-connected Ellis family, befriended Mohamed and offered to sponsor him to come to the United States.
Soon after, Mohamed moved to Seattle and enrolled at the Bush School, the only boy at what was then an all-girls school. As ever, he excelled in academia and went on to study, and later teach, political science at the University of Washington.
When he started his dissertation, Mohamed chose a topic close to his own heart: language policy in French-colonized North Africa. Mohamed hoped to return to Algeria to do research, but he was denied entry because the topic was considered too sensitive. Faced with a roadblock, Mohamed’s enthusiasm waned.
All along, he still carried his childhood passion for food. He decided to take a break from academia and bought a small fruit stand, hoping to reconnect with the joy he’d found in the fig orchards of his childhood. But it wasn’t long before life took Mohamed in another direction.
One of his fruit stand customers needed a helper at the small butcher shop he owned, and Mohamed, knowledgeable as he was about food, was happy to lend a hand. Shortly after, in 1993, Mohamed purchased Select Gourmet Foods and took over ownership.
“It was completely by accident; I’m not really a meat guy!” Mohamed says of his foray into the meat industry. “If I had a choice, I would have chosen produce and been in the fruit business.”
Still, Mohamed worked hard, expanding the company’s non-meat offerings and moving the shop to its current location in Kenmore in 1997. He worked so hard, in fact, that his 18-hour days more than once landed him in the hospital with exhaustion. But unsurprisingly, he’s not one for giving up, and his business thrived.
Today, Select Gourmet Foods supplies meat and game — from beef, bison, and goat to lamb, reptile, and amphibians — as well as poultry and game birds, seafood, eggs, dairy, and kitchen oils.
More than anything, though, Mohamed continually strengthened his business’s commitment to sustainability — true sustainability, he clarifies, not just a buzzword.
“To me, sustainability means that you are feeding people in a way that you can feed them longer, in a way that you aren’t damaging the environment or their health,” Mohamed says. “We get stuck on the word, but we do not follow it sincerely. I refuse to be party to a fraud.” For his part, Mohamed sources only GMO-free, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free meat, and many of his products are grass-fed, free-range, and local.
And as someone whose unlikely life path was often shaped by the kindness of strangers, Mohamed provides opportunities to others whenever he can. For example, one of his part-time employees is the son of the Peace Corps volunteer who sponsored him, and Mohamed sources olive oil pressed by the family who first took him in when he went to high school.
It may seem almost too serendipitous to be true — but for Mohamed Souaiaia, it’s just another day in the life.
Caroline Ferguson has worked as a freelance food and agriculture journalist and a pastry chef, and she now does full-time university outreach and educational initiatives for Bon Appétit Management Company. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
Select Gourmet Foods
15022 Juanita Drive NE
Kenmore, WA 94028