After the pandemic, what will be left of Anaheim’s Little Arabia?
A few minutes before closing, Nesrine Omari stands behind the order window inside Kareem’s Restaurant in Anaheim’s Little Arabia District. She’s the sole person left inside to hand out the last few orders for takeout and delivery.
The solitary moment contrasts starkly with the Palestinian eatery’s usual convivial atmosphere where Arab hospitality has had Omari conversing with families dining in since 1996.
But like most other Arab American businesses along Brookhurst Street, Little Arabia’s main thoroughfare, Kareem’s Restaurant is struggling to get by a few weeks after stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic suddenly converted it to takeout only.
“Everything is so stressful,” Omari says, before handing over a bag of grilled chicken, falafel and hummus. “Do we stay open? Do we close down?”
For years, Little Arabia’s businesses have continued to advocate for official recognition from the city as an ethnic enclave. Now, many of them are asking the same questions as Omari: Will Little Arabia itself even be recognizable after the pandemic passes?
“So far, we’ve had a really good, positive reaction from the community,” says Kareem Hawari, Omari’s son, who’s usually in the kitchen with her, by phone. “But we’re probably down 50% to 60% in sales.”
Kareem’s Restaurant comes into the pandemic having faced uncertainties in the past. When Mike Hawari, Omari’s late husband and restaurant cofounder, fell ill with lung cancer in 2010, his wife shouldered the responsibility of keeping the family business open while taking him to chemotherapy treatments. After Mike died in October 2012, Kareem’s Restaurant shuttered for months. With the help of her children — Kareem, Nora and Marwa — Omari decided to keep the family legacy alive.
But now faced with a pandemic, the restaurant has had to cut half its workforce while hoping to be able to negotiate rent with the commercial landlord. In the meantime, the family is applying for a federal loan meant to help small businesses pay some bills during the pandemic.
It’s a shared dilemma for the restaurants, bakeries, hookah lounges, barber shops, salons and other businesses along Brookhurst Street, which form the largest Middle Eastern ethnic enclave in the United States outside of the Detroit area.
“We are calling all businesses to hear from them and offer support,” says Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council. “It’s the same story for all the restaurants and cafes. They’re all struggling.”
In one of Little Arabia’s central plazas, where flags of Middle Eastern nations are draped atop tile roofs, Alan Abdo speaks of similar struggles before opening up Olive Tree Restaurant, a 15-year staple of the district, for lunchtime.
“We’re not known to be a delivery restaurant,” says Abdo by phone. “We’re more of a sit-down restaurant, in between fine and casual dining.”
Olive Tree’s owner believes small, family-owned eateries like his have borne the brunt of the pandemic where it concerns the restaurant industry. Abdo had to let go several employees immediately following Orange County’s March 17 health order that mandated takeout and delivery options only.
The remaining staff had their hours cut after a rough first few days of sales. Now it’s mostly Abdo and Abu Ahmad, his father, whose recipes have defined Olive Tree’s menu, taking orders and preparing food in between hourlong lulls.
Some days are better than others sales-wise, but Abdo can’t ascribe any rhyme or reason to it. It’s still not enough to pay the regular commercial rent rate.
“None of us have talked to the owner of the plaza,” he says of Ahmad Alam, a longtime property owner in the area. “I think he understands, so far, and is waiting to see what happens. I don’t know what that conversation is going to be like. I’ve talked to other business owners here. They don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Even if Olive Tree survives the initial stay-at-home period, Abdo fears diners might be hurting too much financially or may be too fearful to return in droves.
Early mitigation efforts in California appear to be flattening the curve of confirmed coronavirus cases. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model projects the highest daily death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, coming in the next week before trending downward the rest of the month.
For the many Muslim Americans who patronize Little Arabia, that peak may arrive days before the start of the holy month of Ramadan on April 23 — in other words, not soon enough to help ailing eateries.
“Because of Ramadan, I do well,” says Abdo. “We usually seat 220 people in one hour. Losing Ramadan would be devastating for us.”
In better times, Olive Tree hosted nightly iftar buffets when Muslims broke dawn-to-dusk fasts in religious observance of the Prophet Mohammed’s Koranic revelation. From the main dining area to the outside patio, families gathered to eat after a call to prayer. Even with Ramadan going well into May this year, Abdo doesn’t know if restrictions on restaurants like his will relax before the holy month ends.
“The scariest part about this whole thing is the unknowns,” he says. “How’s this going to affect my business? Am I going to survive? It’s nothing but stress.”
Knafeh Café, a bakery that specializes in the namesake pastry, is feeling the pandemic pinch in another way. Ramadan is a big season for the cheesy, shredded-dough dessert but owner Asem Abusir has seen catering, across the board, take a steep hit.
“Everyone canceled all the reservations that we had,” he says. “We lost all of that. Catering has been the biggest impact on Knafeh Café.”
To compensate for the loss of walk-in customers and event catering, Knafeh Café is now offering free shipping nationwide. Abusir also is selling a personal-sized tray more suited to a stay-at-home family than a big get-together. “We’re trying to be creative,” he says.
And that sense of innovation will be needed to keep Little Arabia going against the odds. It doesn’t hurt to have a little hope too.
“Little Arabia’s always been there to welcome everybody from around the world,” says Hawari. “We’re not going anywhere.”
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