Customers exit the Vytyl grocery store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in January 2024. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

By Cindy Hadish/for the Corridor Business Journal

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Plans to open a Mediterranean grocery store in California shifted when Mohamed Mahmoud’s cousin invited him to take a look at Cedar Rapids.

That invitation led to the opening of Vytyl – a derivation of “vital,” as it’s pronounced – at 365 Edgewood Rd. NW, in the Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center, specializing in groceries from a worldwide market, fresh certified Halal meats, a deli and bakery.

“This is the first branch, because we found Cedar Rapids really needed this kind of store here,” said Mr. Mahmoud, president of Vytyl.

Plans still call for a store in Irvine, California, but customers are happy with the decision to start with an Iowa branch.

Jill Holmes of Cedar Rapids stopped by recently to buy a variety of the store’s popular baklava, made from scratch daily at Vytyl by a baker introduced to Mr. Mahmoud by the same Iowa City cousin who encouraged him to consider an Iowa store.

A variety of baklava is sold in the “baklava room” at Vytyl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

In Vytyl’s “baklava room,” as fans have dubbed it, Ms. Holmes bought a platter of the sweet layered desserts – some made with traditional walnuts and others such as cashews and pistachios – as a gift, while acknowledging she enjoys them, too.

“That’s why I’m coming back,” she said.

That side room, where customers swiftly descend to buy from sheets of baklava and other desserts, including hareesa, a sweet spongy cake made with heavy cream, had initially been planned for a different purpose.

Mr. Mahmoud said the city of Cedar Rapids nixed Vytyl’s concept for a hookah room inside the store, with an outdoor patio for warm weather, where customers could use water pipes for smoking, a cultural tradition in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, where he is from and where Vytyl’s founder, Ahmed Almarfadi, resides.

They opened Vytyl in December 2022, with five employees currently and future plans that include opening a coffee lounge. Three booths provide seating inside the store and Mr. Mahmoud also envisions a drive-through, where customers could purchase a Turkish coffee and fresh baked goods without having to leave their car.

With a background in construction, Mr. Mahmoud moved to the United States in 2020 with his wife, Fairoz Ali, who is Vytyl’s chef, making authentic cuisine such as chicken shawarma, a Middle Eastern staple, with roasted marinated chicken and sauce wrapped in flatbread; one of the most popular dishes in the store’s deli.

Vytyl’s pita bread, also baked fresh daily, proved so popular that the store had to place a daily limit of 10 pieces per customer, so other shoppers wouldn’t be disappointed to find it was sold out when arriving later in the day, he said.

A sign notes the daily limit on Vytyl’s pita bread. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Other popular items include a large variety of olives and olive oil, and Vytyl’s beef, lamb, goat and other meats (no pork), slaughtered and prepared under strict Halal practices.

“That’s difficult to find in the city,” Mr. Mahmoud said. “Many customers come in for the meat.”

Stuffed grape leaves, hummus and pickles, along with curry and a multitude of other spices, also are major draws to the store, he said.

Rima and Reid Davis of Cedar Rapids frequent Vytyl, where Ms. Davis is particularly fond of the cookies and assortment of spices, while her husband appreciates the wide variety of grocery items.

Rima and Reid Davis of Cedar Rapids shop at Vytyl in the Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center January 2024. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Aisles of teas, bottled pomegranate and other juices, fresh produce, including zucchini, dried greens and beans, frozen foods and more unusual items, such as date and tamarind chutney, can be found at Vytyl.

“It’s a good place to shop,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s quite a bit different from other stores.”

Vytyl is open daily except Mondays. Find hours and more information at:

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Vytyl President Mohamed Mahmoud is shown inside the store at the Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
A mixed grill meal is shown at Vytyl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
An employee walks past the Halal meat counter at Vytyl. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Rima Davis shops in one of the grocery aisles of Vytyl in January 2024. (photo/Cindy Hadish)