Published: Sunday, November 19, 2006
Restaurateur succeeds with themes
The owner enjoyed combining food and conversation.
RALEIGH, N.C. It was a risky idea. But perhaps more needed than ever. Almost 3,000 people had just been killed in attacks by Arab terrorists Sept. 11, 2001.
Jamal Haddad thought, if anything, good food, music and warm service might help heal the fissures of distrust. In 2002, the Raleigh resident opened his first Middle Eastern restaurant in Cary.
He named it after a dish made of eggplant: "Baba Ghannouj Mediterranean Bistro: Where the World Meets to Eat."
He didn't stop with one. Over the past four years, Haddad has opened six Baba Ghannouj restaurants in the area.
He sold three to independent operators, recently closed one in North Raleigh and opened his latest in downtown Raleigh in April. The restaurants share similar menus and suppliers. Haddad, 47, hopes to open more.
"Where I come from, when you offer somebody coffee, you become friends," he recently told about 150 students from area colleges during a "coffee hour" held at the Baba Ghannouj off Main Street in Durham.
The students were there to mingle and practice conversing with native Arabic speakers. Nasser Isleem, an Arabic professor organizing the event, explained why he had asked Haddad to be the night's guest speaker.
Haddad, born to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother in Kuwait, came to North Carolina in 1978. Classified officially as a "Palestinian refugee," Haddad, after he turned 18, could no longer stay in Kuwait under the visa of his father, who owned a small Mercedes repair shop. Haddad's father knew friends with children in North Carolina schools. He sent his son to a small business program in Raleigh at the time, King's College.
Raleigh became home. Haddad got married here, had children, became a U.S. citizen. He got into the restaurant business after his mother forced his father to send him $10,000 in seed money. He liked the combination of food and talking to people. He helped set up several Subway sandwich shops in the state. In 1989, he started his own chain, Checker's Pizza, Subs & Salads.
What fascinated him
He started another chain called Papa's Subs & Pizza in 1995, licensing about 12 restaurants in about six years.
Then Haddad felt pangs of nostalgia for his grandmother's house in Lebanon. He decided to take his family and return to Lebanon. He wanted to find out where "home" truly was.
Over time, Haddad found that while much about Lebanon had remained the same, the people had changed.
After six months, Haddad knew Lebanon's economy did not have jobs that suited him. He decided to return to the United States. He vowed to become more involved in American society. He would seek to bring more of his own ethnic heritage into his livelihood.
Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Haddad discussed the restaurant idea with his friend Ken Jarvis, whose family for decades owned the Tastee Freez franchise in North Carolina. Jarvis, an Episcopal Christian, told Haddad starting a Middle Eastern business at the time would be an iffy proposition but the right spiritual decision.
Jarvis said he knew Haddad felt driven to bring people together over the dinner table. "When you break bread or eat together, you start to listen to each other," Jarvis said.