Nadim Kashouh says he’s always had a “passion” for sales — and also a fondness for the restaurant business. He’s blending both in a growing venture called Café Lebanon, although now he needs to use the plural when referring to his entrepreneurial exploits. He started in downtown Springfield, expanded into Northampton, will open soon in East Longmeadow, and is now eyeing the West Hartford market. Such growth stems from having a good product and knowing how to sell it.
Nadim Kashouh has traveled a long road to get to where he is: status as an up-and-coming restaurateur in the Pioneer Valley.
From a geographic standpoint, the trip has included stops in Monrovia, Liberia in West Africa (where he was born); Bmakkine, Lebanon, to which his family moved in 1974; Roslindale, Mass. (where he lived for a time with his sister, who emigrated a few years before he did); Nashua, N.H.; and a few other communities in Eastern New England before coming to the Pioneer Valley.
Meanwhile, career-wise, he’s logged time, though sometimes not much of it, as a line person in a Jewish deli, short-order cook, car salesman, and jewelry store assistant manager.
In all of those scenarios, he was working for someone else — something Kashouh (pronounced ‘cashew’) ultimately decided he didn’t want to do anymore. That decision came in the spring of 2000, soon after an acquaintance urged him to take a look at the Café Lebanon restaurant on State Street in Springfield, which had just closed its doors because, in Kashouh’s view, its owner couldn’t turn what seemed like vast potential into profits.
He thought he could do better, and his track record to date shows that his judgment was pretty good. After enjoying initial success at the State Street site, he relocated the restaurant to a Main Street address formerly occupied by Tilly’s. In 2005, he opened a second Café Lebanon on Conz Street in Northampton, and later this year he will open a third in the center of East Longmeadow, at the site of the former Wild Apples eatery. And he’s already looking hard at the West Hartford market and opening a restaurant there.
This isn’t a chain, said Kashouh, stressing that, while each facility will have roughly the same menu — dominated by Middle Eastern staples ranging from lamb kabobs to grape leaves — they will have their own identity and target audience.
The Springfield location does better with the lunch crowd, which features both those working downtown and others attending meeting and conventions in the city, he said, while the Northampton location fares better with dinner and those willing to travel to sample that community’s eclectic mix of eateries. The planned East Longmeadow facility will join a growing list of restaurants in that town and target both lunch and dinner crowds from several mostly residential communities.
Kashouh described his first several years as a restaurant owner as an education — one that is certainly ongoing — and acknowledged that there is a learning curve that most not in this business wouldn’t appreciate.
“It is a very tough business,” he said, acknowledging that longevity is hard to achieve because of the level of general competition, swings in the economy, and the fickleness of the dining public. “The key to success is a consistently good product and attention to every detail.”
Out on a Lamb
Kashouh told BusinessWest that while there is a sizable Lebanese population in the region, he’s not relying on it for his livelihood.
“They don’t go to restaurants very much,” he explained with a laugh that speaks of personal experience, “because they’re got a wife or a mother or a grandmother who cooks for them. They’re enjoying home-cooked meals — they don’t need to go to a Lebanese restaurant.”
Apparently there are enough area residents of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean descent, or that enjoy food from those regions, to enable two Café Lebanons to thrive, and for Kashouh to be confident enough to open a third and make preliminary plans for a fourth.
They are drawn by the menu, complete with a number of recipes Kashouh has collected from his mother and other relatives, but also by ambience and special programs, such as belly dancing, comedy, and Arabic music. The Springfield location, for example, features several wall murals, painted freestyle by artist Clint Magoon, that present an Arabian Nights feel, if not exactly an accurate representation of Lebanon.
“We don’t have deserts, and we don’t really have camels — there are some, but they’re for the tourists,” said Kashouh, as he pointed to another feature painted on one wall that is also slightly out of place (although not to him) — his Jack Russell Terrier, aptly named Jack.
All this might have been hard to imagine in 1990, when Kashouh, with but one suitcase and $500 given to him by his uncle, landed in New York and made his way to Roslindale and, soon thereafter, a job at the Jewish deli. No fan of politics, to use his own words, he sought to escape the turmoil that then defined Beirut, only a 20-minute drive from Bmakkine, and considered returning to Liberia. But civil war had broken out there, so he instead sought much higher ground.
After working a few jobs in the restaurant sector, for which he developed a liking and an understanding, Kashouh, who had what he called a passion for sales, sought to indulge it. He thought about opening an import-export business, but couldn’t get that off the ground and instead segued into automobile sales. His first experience was neither fulfilling nor profitable, but theorizing that it might be the dealership and not the business, he tried another, this one in Nashua, N.H.
And he found out it was, at least for him, the business after all.
It was in Nashua that he met Eli Hannoush, one of eight brothers who emigrated with their parents from Zaleh, Lebanon in the late ’70s and would later go on to create one of the largest jewelry store chains in the Northeast. Eli talked him into working for the chain’s Nashua store as an assistant manager, which he did for a year before taking the same role at stores in Saugus and then Peabody, Mass.
Kashouh eventually left the Hannoush jewelry chain and went to work for another, E.B. Horn, in Boston. He spent two years there, but was becoming increasingly determined to scratch his entrepreneurial itch.
“I always wanted to have my own restaurant; I always enjoyed cooking for people and catering to people,” he said. “And I said, ‘maybe I should go into business for myself.’”
He did so with the help of another Hannoush brother, Norman, who first suggested to Kashouh that he look at a building the Hannoushes owned in Salem, N.H, then a Chinese restaurant, as the site for an eatery with his name on it. He looked, but determined the storefront needed more work than his budget could afford.
“That was on a Monday,” said Kashouh, adding that Norman Hannoush quickly moved the conversation to the Café Lebanon in Springfield, opened by Lebanese native Marie Zaide, which had gone out of business the previous Saturday.
After surveying the property and gauging the market, Kashouh decided to take on the challenge — creating Nadim’s Café Lebanon, which would open three months later — with plenty of confidence and some practical experience from which he thought he could build.
“When you have a passion for something, you can learn it,” he said, referring in this case to the restaurant industry, but implying any sector. “And I’m still learning today; it never stops, really.”
Surveying the local restaurant landscape, Kashouh sees plenty of competition — but little if any in his specific niche, one that he is determined to exploit.
“I think there’s a great market for this kind of restaurant here,” he said. “People can only have so much Chinese or Mexican, or whatever. They’re going to want something different.”
Kashouh provides it with a menu that is Middle Eastern in nature, a cuisine that he describes with two simple words: “fresh and healthy.” The menu includes traditional favorites from that region, including lamb, chicken, and turkey kabobs, grape leaves, tabouli, and rice pilaf, with baklava, rice pudding, and other stalwarts from that part of the world for dessert.
The appetizer list is topped by something called Kibba Naya (for Friday and Saturday dinner only), which is freshly ground raw beef mixed with wheat germ, onions, and Lebanese spices, and topped with olive oil. The list also includes hummus, Baba Ghannouj (roasted eggplant), grape leaves, spinach pie, meat pie, Kibbie Krass (hand-rolled ground meatballs with wheat germ, stuffed with sautéed meat, onions, pine nuts, and spices), and Makanik, Lebanese sausage sautéed with lemon juice.
There are also combo platters named for Middle Eastern cities past and present — Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Byblos, and Anjar — and the traditional Lebanese “full maza,” a four-course dinner.
Kashouh had such good success with that menu in Springfield that he opted to open a second location in Northampton two years ago, or roughly the same time he was moving the Springfield facility from State Street to Main Street, where he has more room and is closer to the downtown office towers.
The Northampton location has enjoyed steady if unspectacular growth, he told BusinessWest, while Springfield has done well with its predominantly luncheon business, something he expects will improve if and when new ownership of the neighboring Sovereign Bank building (now known as One Financial Plaza) succeeds in improving on its 40% vacancy rate.
While downtown Springfield is showing signs of improvement, in terms of image and the perception of crime, there are many who are still reluctant to come into the city at night, said Kashouh, adding that this phenomenon is part of the reason why he is opening a third location in East Longmeadow, which is quickly becoming another restaurant mecca.
“East Longmeadow is fast becoming the new Northampton — there’s a lot of new restaurants opening there,” he said, citing a new Spoleto’s, Fusion, and others. Such a proliferation of eateries makes a community a good spot, he said, because although there is plenty of competition, the city or town in question becomes a dining destination.
The third Café Lebanon, due to open this fall, intends to be a big part of that mix, he said, noting that the location provides ample room for dining and other programs — belly dancing has become a permanent fixture in both Springfield and Northampton, and it will in East Longmeadow as well.
As for West Hartford, Kashouh said he has always drawn well from the Northern Conn. area (he tracks the calls for reservations through a dedicated phone number), and, while he believes many from those communities will travel to East Longmeadow, they will be better served, and he will draw more of them, with a restaurant in the Hartford area.
Desserts and Deserts
When asked about the restaurant business in general, Kashouh sounded like someone who had already learned many lessons in seven years.
“Business is up and down, but generally pretty good,” he said. “But you have to work hard all the time. You have to keep yourself above the others, somehow.
“We can’t do that just by offering a Lebanese or Middle Eastern menu that no one else has,” he continued. “It goes well beyond the food; it’s all about making sure the customer is satisfied.”
His success in that regard can be measured in many ways, but mostly by the fact that there are now several Cafés Lebanon with Nadim’s name on them, and more on the drawing board.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]