Sami Fruits, a popular fruits and vegetables grocery chain with four locations in the greater Montreal region, is battling the borough of St-Laurent on zoning issues that could see its floor space drastically reduced.

The small Quebec chain offers fresh produce at exceptionally low prices — a major lifeline for people living in the surrounding area, many of whom live below the poverty line. The store even offers a neighbourhood shuttle service to bring people to the store and back home again.

According to a letter from Quebec’s health and social services agency, people living in the area have Sami Fruits to thank for better access to fruits and vegetables.

Sami Fruits

Shoppers peruse the produce at the St-Laurent location of Sami Fruits. (Raffy Boudjikanian/CBC)

But because the St-Laurent location is in an industrial sector, it’s technically only allowed to use 15 per cent of its property for retail purposes. So a fence was put up inside the large store to demarcate where the 15 per cent is — effectively creating a cage within the store for people to shop in.

“It’s impossible,” said Sami Fruits Vice-President Taleb Al Asmar. “You see yourself. The clientele, it’s impossible to put them into that little cage over there.”

Demand from the community

The store’s current surface area is around 20,000 square feet — about half the size of the chain's biggest location, in Montreal’s east end.

'I look at the prices here, they’re ridiculously low compared to wherever else I shop.'- Ernest Assaf, Sami Fruits customer

Al Asmar said the company bought the St-Laurent spot two years ago.

“We first bought this place for warehousing purposes, but by popular demand of people, for our popular name […] they started calling us and asking us if we could start selling in retail,” he said.

Customers like Ernest Assaf go to Sami Fruits because of its competitive prices, at a time when food prices everywhere else are increasing.

“I look at the prices here, they’re ridiculously low compared to wherever else I shop. Like in some cases cucumbers half-price, fruits, vegetables, dried fruits. It’s great,” Assaf said.

Rules are rules

But zoning rules are zoning rules, said borough mayor Alan DeSousa. The borough is threatening to take Sami Fruits to court if the store does not comply with those zoning rules.

“As mayor, I have an obligation to the community that the rules are respected. We have 5,000 companies in St-Laurent, and if everyone of them decided to do what they want with the rules, you can imagine we would have a situation not far from the Wild West,” DeSousa said.

Even so, Sami Fruits will still try to battle the borough. Al Asmar and company will present a petition with more than 3,000 signatures asking that the store be rezoned so it can continue to operate at full-capacity.

“On Tuesday there’s a big council meeting. This could be finished right there and then. The demand was made for the permits, it’s in their hands, they see the citizens want us here,” Al Asmar said.