This is the sixth in a series of articles featuring immigrant-owned restaurants in enclaves located outside of major US food hubs.
Most, if not all, of the dozen immigrant-owned restaurants I've visited in the middle of the United States were surviving day-to-day or hour-to-hour, often taking losses, gambling on a dream, gambling that their people would hold them down.
Alex Harb, in Wichita, Kansas, has different goals: "500 Meddys across the country."
Harb was born in South Lebanon during the country's 25-year-long civil war. He was ten years old in 1990, when the war officially ended, but conflict continued through his teens.
"I grew up in a war zone," he said, nonchalantly from his crisp restaurant in Wichita. "Militias are a bunch of thugs. It's not an organized army. Civil war, thugs control the street. My father was a grocer. He was a wholesaler. They always came and blackmailed him for money. If he didn't give him what they wanted, they bombed the shop. We lived over the building where my dad stored his product. They would come and put three bombs underneath our home. It wakes you up. It was scary. It didn't really take the building down but it opened the door. It damaged a lot of products. There's glass all over the place. You kinda get used to it after a while."
Wichita has been a Lebanese hub since the late 1800s when Christians, fleeing what was then Syria (Lebanon wasn't established until the 1920s), came on ships to New York or California and headed for the American Dream du jour, the frontier, stopping in southeastern Kansas. Today there are more than a dozen Lebanese restaurants in Wichita. Harb, however, swears that when he came to the city at 19 years old, to attend Wichita State University as a computer science major, the Lebanese population was not a part of the calculation.
He put himself through school working two restaurant jobs: cooking Lebanese food during the day and waiting tables at a steakhouse at night. Four years later, he opened an 800-square-foot computer store in Wichita, selling hardware, surveillance systems, and servers. The little hole-in-the-wall shop ballooned to five stores, 40,000 square feet, and annual sales topping $5 million, but those restaurant experiences called to Harb.
"I've been to a lot of different cities across America and every ethnic food in America has a chain," he said. "Mediterranean food does not have anything like that. I figured there is room for it. That's why I started thinking about doing Meddys."
He tracked down a Lebanese cook in Canada and built a menu based on his mother's cooking.
"I watched my mom cooked growing up for the first 19 years," he said. "I really never made it. You always absorbed the fresh lemon juice or garlic. It's in the back of your head. The main recipes are usually basic 'mom's cooking' recipes. Nothing too fancy."
More fancy was the system that Harb developed in the kitchen. He brushed off the notion that this could be a product of his computer science background, but his methodical approach suggests otherwise.
"The trick with the food is how can you produce it and keep it consistent at a certain speed with a certain quality. This is a science and every single move I make in the kitchen, or one of my cooks make in the kitchen, it took days day days and days, probably months to think how you do it," he said. "As I added products and took off products on the menu, we were very very careful. We're going to make this product and we're going to hold it for this long. We're going to serve it this way, every single piece of the puzzle. Trying to serve 500 people within two hours and still produce at a seven-minute ticket time. Still produce quality food and sell it for $10 per person—that's the most somebody would spend here—and still make money."
The first Meddys opened in 2014 with a Chipotle-esque, urban-fast-casual aesthetic, topping the menu with shawarma wraps. Staffing the kitchen was the biggest struggle, Harb said. Meddys is the only restaurant in Wichita with a shawarma rotisserie. It spins prominently behind the counter.
"You have zero cooks in town that know how to deal with it," Harb said. "Everyone knows how to throw chicken breasts on a grill and cook you the best chicken sandwich or a hamburger patty or sauté in a pan. When you have a shawarma spit, it's a meat that's cooking throughout the day and you really have to shave it the right way and deal with it the right way."
In October of 2016, he opened a second location and, based on feedback from customers, designed what he hopes will be the prototype for his chain. It's less bright, with more comfortable seating. Everything, from the font to the interior design to the service system, falls together like a chain. The chicken shawarma wrap is Americanized, mild, and the most popular item on the menu. The beef shawarma wrap is more popular among the Lebanese customers, who make up only about 5 percent of his base. It's more authentic. You can taste the cinnamon, the nutmeg.
The second Meddys, which has dozens of tables, was packed after 8 PM on a recent Friday night. It was fast, affordable, and fresh. If it thrives on a national level, I would not be surprised. Harb's success would just be the next in a long line of highly successful immigrant entrepreneurs. According to a 2016 study from the National Foundation for American Policy, 44 of the 87 American startup companies valued at more than $1 billion were founded by immigrants.
Harb is speaking with investors and eyeing a third location. While he wants the chain to run far and wide, he's unwilling to franchise.
"You can never get the Mediterranean food to become like a cookie-cutter food," he said. "You go to IHOP they have liquid eggs for you. They don't poach eggs anymore. You can never do that with the Mediterranean food or Lebanese food because the main ingredients we depend on are fresh garlic and fresh lemon. Those, you cannot substitute them for anything else and keep the taste. This has got to stay under one management that knows it very, very well."
Harb claims he's never experienced discrimination. He's optimistic about Trump. He helped to kick off a citywide fundraiser, #BlueForBrian, for a police officer who was struck by a "thug driving a stolen car." Wichita is home, he said, and if he leaves for more than a week, he feels like a fish out of water. He runs an extremely successful Lebanese restaurant, but it was the American style of business that influenced him more than anything.
"What I still remember from the good old days I actually learned from the steakhouse more than I learned from the Lebanese restaurant," he said. "It was how you capitalized on every single guest and making the guest for life. I really learned how important the customer service was and how you build repeat business. You go the extra mile for the guest to make him a walking advertisement for your business."