[The following article appeared in the October issue of City Heights Life, a community newspaper funded by Price Charities.]
How did an Iraqi-born Catholic come to own a Latino supermarket with an Irish name? It’s a long story but well worth hearing.
Mark Kassab, co-owner of Murphy’s Market, was born and raised in Iraq. He immigrated to San Diego in 1977 with his two brothers to join his mother and sister. Kassab said the family has a long history in Iraq, tracing their ancestry to 500 B.C. and the Babylonian empire, which included present-day Iraq. They are Chaldean Catholics and speak Aramaic, which Kassab said is more similar to Hebrew than Arabic, Iraq’s predominant language.
After settling in the San Carlos neighborhood of San Diego as a 17-year-old, Kassab attended Patrick Henry High School and worked at a grocery store. He said his family was poor, but together with his two oldest siblings, he committed to pooling money to buy a supermarket in the future.
Saving money wasn’t easy. Kassab said he remembers making only $2 per hour even though minimum wage was $2.75. His manager said his English wasn’t good enough to justify paying him the extra $.75 per hour.
Not long after graduating from high school, Kassab heard through a friend that Murphy’s Market on Fairmount Avenue was for sale. Supposedly, Murphy’s was founded by an Irish descendant in the 1960’s, hence the Irish name.
Along with his older sister and younger brother, Kassab leveraged the money they had saved working at local grocery stores to borrow money from the bank to buy Murphy’s. At the youthful age of 20, three years removed from landing in the Unites States with $5 in his pocket, Kassab was the proud co-owner of a business.
“We worked really hard – more than 100 hours a week – to be successful. We had no other choice,” Kassab said. The early years were really lean for the three siblings, and they all continued to live at home. To raise extra money for operations, Kassab took a second job at a Pacific Beach liquor store. He said he remembers working at Murphy’s from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the liquor store from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and returning to Murphy’s for a couple of hours to stock shelves for the next day.
When asked if it was all worth it, Mark replied, “You learned not to complain. You take care of your family… It was better than being unemployed.”
The Kassabs learned to be savvy businesspeople and adapt to their changing environment. Murphy’s customer demographics changed drastically from the early ’80s to the ’90s as City Heights experienced a large influx of Latinos. They did a lot of listening to their customers’ wants and needs and changed merchandise to stay current.
In time, the Kassabs decided they would need to expand operations to meet growing demand. The original store was just 1,800 square feet with six parking spaces and one employee. In 2009, the time was right to purchase an adjacent lot and build a new 9,000-square-foot building with 35 parking spaces. Murphy’s on Fairmount now employs 35 full-time workers. All are City Heights residents. This is a particular point of satisfaction for Mark and the Kassab family.
The Kassabs have had many business ventures in other parts of southern California, but Kassab said they are always short-term, sold to allow them to focus on their City Heights businesses.
“I like my neighborhood. I want to stay here,” Kassab said.
The Kassabs built the Chevron station near the I-15 on University Avenue from the ground up in 2001 and opened a second store, Supermercado Murphy’s, on University Avenue in 2005. Altogether, the Kassabs’ businesses employ more than 100 City Heights residents. While Kassab does not require his employees to be City Heights residents, he said he believes employing locals is good for his business and good for the community.
“You come from a poor, humble lifestyle. You work hard, and this country gives you everything you want,” Kassab said, reminiscing about his 34 years in the United States.
Kassab has been married for 25 years and has four kids. They have all attended Our Lady of Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in City Heights. Besides business, Mark’s other passion is running. He runs 45 miles a week and has completed multiple marathons. Peering into the future, Kassab said he envisions opening an upscale supermarket in City Heights that provides organic foods.