By Anna Mindess
Adversity is no stranger to the Ayyads.
The Palestinian family has weathered personal, financial and medical crises in their pursuit of the American dream. But the whole family’s hard work helped them turn a corner five years ago, when they rented a seemingly jinxed spot at 1101 San Pablo Ave. in Albany and turned it into a beloved neighborhood restaurant.
Zaki Kabob House is cherished by the locals for its warm welcoming spirit, its succulently spiced, organic rotisserie chicken, and a slew of Palestinian specialties not found at every other falafel and hummus spot — such as spheeha, mini-pizzas topped with lamb or spinach, mashweeya, a grilled vegetable salad with smoky eggplant, and mudamus, creamy poached fava beans with stewed tomatoes.
The Ayyads now find themselves at a crossroads. Their original landlord, who supported them in making many improvements to the modest green building, recently passed away. His heirs plan to sell the building and are offering the family first option to buy — with a price tag of $700,000.
Although Kameem and Fayza Ayyad (the parents) opened the restaurant thanks to Kameem’s determination and Fayza’s family recipes, Zaki is now officially owned and managed by the couple’s son and two daughters.
“I like the restaurant business and I like this community,” said son and manager Ramzy Ayyad. “And I feel close to our customers. We have a few regulars who come several times a week. Besides the food, many people appreciate the fact that we have our own parking lot so they don’t have to circle the block looking for parking.”
Ramzy, who studied business at San Francisco State University, often attends seminars for independent restaurant owners. “As marketing director and Jack of all trades, I come up with these hare-brained marketing campaigns,” he said, smiling, “like our kabob-club and reward certificates. We have 1,400 members.”
The Ayyads also feel strongly about giving back. They offer discount flyers to community organizations and regularly schedule “Parking Lot Playtime” complete with magic shows, balloons and a bouncy house, donating 10% of the proceeds to Albany School Care.
“Now it’s time for all our friends to help us buy our building,” Ramzy said. “We have started a campaign through Fundable.com to raise the $700,000.” Supporters can pledge from $100 to $10,000 and receive rewards.
“I know it’s a lot of money, but I think we can make this happen,” Ramzy said. “We’re thinking positive. If we can buy the building, we’ll have freedom to make improvements. People have been asking us to screen off our front patio. We would love to do that, but I got a quote that it would cost $35,000.”
As he packed up a to-go order of chicken shwarma for a first-time customer, who heard rave reviews from co-workers at a nearby dialysis center, Ramzy threw in a few mints and quipped, “Here, you don’t want to burp on your patients.” The customer laughed and mentioned he previously worked in Saudi Arabia and misses the food.
Fayza smiles at this news. “We get many customers who are familiar with our food from having lived or worked in Libya, Kuwait, Syria or Egypt,” she said. But she’s not quite as optimistic as her son about buying the building.
“People think when you have a restaurant, you have a lot of money,” she said. “We’re trying to hold on. It’s not easy, especially if we do the right thing,” she added, referring to the fact that as Muslims, the Ayyads do not sell alcohol, which is how many restaurants make most of their profit.
“For me, it’s more important that my customers come, eat and leave happy than that I become rich,” Fayza said. “I will always keep my moral values.”
Fayza, who has been in U.S. since 1980, knows from experience that nothing comes easy.
“My husband and I have always done things on our own,” she said. “Even when our house burned down, we relied on ourselves to pick ourselves up. We didn’t ask anyone for help. I had to get an extra job, as a caretaker for an old woman, but I didn’t mind. It was an honest job and I could still follow my religion. I say ‘Inshallah’ and perhaps we will also ask the new landlord to lower the price.”
One of Zaki’s regular customers is Bill Pezick, who has been frequenting Zaki at least twice a week since shortly after they opened. He likes chatting with Kameem and loves their cooking.
“The big thing is they understand herbs,” Pezick said as he took a sip of a bright green beverage that the staff makes just for him. It’s a variation on their popular mint lemonade — without sugar, but with extra mint and extra crushed ice, “so I can sip this refreshing drink during my whole meal.”
A friendly guy who usually comes solo, Pezick is apt to strike up conversations with diners at neighboring tables.
“People often ask me what to order,” he said. “I’ve tried everything on the menu — except the eggplant, and that’s because I’m allergic to eggplant.”
That evening, he ordered carrot soup, spheeha and tabouleh. Pezick also appreciates when the Ayyads use innovative menus to help charities — their weeklong Syria relief menu featured dishes from the region, including the carrot soup.
“For more than 40 years, this building never housed a successful restaurant,” Pezick, an investment advisor and financial planner, said. “With their renovations and improvements, the Ayyads have added tremendous value to the place. It’s ironic that they may now have to pay more for the value that they have personally added to the building. I hope they can do it.”
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