ELLSWORTH — Caribou is perhaps not the first place one would expect to find a Lebanese man, sporting a crisp dress shirt and tie, going door-to-door selling wares out of an old woven fishing basket on his back. But that’s exactly where one could find Joseph Sleeper in the early 1900s.
“He dressed every day with a tie,” said Terri Sleeper, who married Joseph’s grandson Steve. “He was proud to be an American and served his community and Catholic faith.”
Sleeper’s is the quintessential American story: a man boards a boat on a distant shore with a few dollars in his pocket and crosses the ocean in search of opportunity. In Sleeper’s case, that boat left from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1910, and stopped at Ellis Island, where Sleeper’s Lebanese name, Seleba, was changed by immigration authorities.
“He started out selling from the backpack and then moved up to he was able to get a cart, kind of like a mule, and eventually he opened a storefront in Caribou,” said Terri. “It’s still there today-being run third-generation, a grocery store and clothing store, Sleeper’s.”
Subsequent Sleeper generations have proven to be just as entrepreneurial. The family built a chain of all-purpose markets around the state selling dry goods, footwear, outdoor apparel and tools.
And Steve, who lives in Bangor with his wife, Terri, ran a photography business (Sleeper’s Photo Lab) in Bangor for 20 years before turning to his newest venture: selling Lebanese food from a cart with a red umbrella, just like his grandfather.
“I grew up eating all this food,” said Steve. “Who would have known it would turn into a business?”
The venture started on the weekends, but has quickly morphed into a full-time gig for Steve.
“We started to do some farmers markets,” said Terri, after an Amish family selling at the Brewer market suggested it.
“I like to do flower decorations,” she continued.
“One day we were selling cookies and I said, ‘You know, let’s make the hummus that we’re always making.’ We made up the hummus and our traditional tabouli. People went crazy.”
The couple eventually got a mobile vendors license, which allows them to sell anywhere in the state. They found a simple cart, similar to Steve’s grandfather’s, and modified it with coolers and a bright red umbrella.
And then they pulled out the family recipe books and started cooking.
They made baba ganoush (Terri’s favorite: “It’s smoky, it’s really good), a roasted eggplant dip with tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Then there was gazpacho (tomato or cucumber), green goddess hummus, stuffed grape leaves, ricotta fritters and Mediterranean egg rolls.
“By listening to the customers we’re taking their suggestions and creating some new dishes from our traditional recipes,” said Terri.
All of the food is gluten-free and vegetarian.
“That was just an accident,” said Steve, “but it turned out to be a spectacular niche.”
The Sleepers also have modified their recipes to accommodate food allergies, altering recipes to make them vegan and dairy-free.
“That’s the other aspect of why we’re so busy,” said Steve. “People have a lot of food allergies.”
Starting a new business can be exhausting, but it’s paid off in more ways than one: Steve has lost more than 70 pounds, a change he attributes to eating a primarily Mediterranean diet.
“The doctor said lose the weight or lose your knees,” he said. “I gained weight every decade — in my 30s, 40s and 50s. In my 60s I’ve taken it off.”
And for Terri, who has a full-time job at Northern Light Health in Bangor, the new business has been a way to unwind.
“I relax when I cook. It kind of shuts your mind off.”
Mediterranean Cuisine by TS can be found at farmers markets around the region, including Stonington, Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Bangor and Brewer.
For more information, visit facebook.com/mediterraneancuisinesbyts/ or call 951-4052.