Surviving the Shutdown: Siblings keep the family legacy alive at Kareem’s Restaurant
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown have left many restaurants uncertain about their future. As smaller, less-heralded restaurants across the city grapple with new realities, we asked them to share their stories.
The stacked metal tables and chairs outside Kareem’s in Anaheim speaks to the Middle Eastern restaurant’s particular predicament during this pandemic.
In the pre-coronavirus days, families and friends packed tables and freely reached over one another to nosh off platters packed with emerald-green falafels, crunchy fattoush, smooth labneh and other Palestinian standards.
“Our cuisine is all about communion, and that’s now all gone,” said Kareem Hawari, 23, who runs the restaurant alongside his older sister, Nora. “The whole culture starts with the pita in the hand, and we can’t do that right now or for a while.
“Our regulars told us at the beginning of coronavirus, ‘Please let us sit and eat! No one has to know!’” Kareem continued. “But we had to tell them they couldn’t. If we don’t lead by example, it’s not a good look. This is our parents’ legacy.”
Kareem and Nora take their heritage seriously. Their parents, Palestinian immigrants Mike Hawari and Nesrine Omari, opened Kareem’s in 1996, the first Middle Eastern restaurant in a neighborhood that was mostly bikini bars and run-down strip malls. Today, the area is known as Little Arabia and houses one of the largest concentrations of Middle Eastern businesses in the country outside of Detroit.
Nesrine is Little Arabia’s unofficial auntie, a ball of strong hugs and handshakes forged by decades of patting out falafels at Kareem’s for diners from the neighborhood as well as politicians including California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and famous musicians (Los Lobos guitarist Louie Perez, a vegetarian, says the falafels here are the best in the country). But for the moment, she sticks to the kitchen.
“We’re trying to keep my mom away from the front,” said Nora, 25. The health of their mom is important; the family’s patriarch passed away from lung cancer in 2012.
The lack of a dine-in crowd has gutted Kareem’s business; the effective shutdown of restaurants nationwide cut Kareem’s wholesale falafel sales to other eateries by 50%. Frozen falafel packages, available at Kareem’s and at markets across Orange County, are moving faster than ever as more people choose to cook at home, “but that just covers our expenses,” Kareem said.
But the regulars are slowly coming back: “They don’t even have to order; we know what they want,” Nora said.
Kareem’s has introduced a family meal — 10 pieces of chicken or falafel, along with fattoush, hummus, babaganoush, fries and basmati rice — for $35 that Kareem said customers will “eat in the parking lot like a tailgate.”
Kareem has worked full-time at the restaurant since graduating from high school; Nora used to come in only on weekends. She’s a filmmaker, but with nearly all her projects on hold she’s now the cashier while Kareem makes deliveries and Nesrine works the back.
“I grew up here, and it’s in my blood,” Nora said. “What better way to be artistic for now than at a restaurant?”
Kareem and Nora hadn’t worked so closely in years, so the two “bicker like brothers and sisters do,” she said. “But we have the laughs and love too.”
Kareem pointed to a closet. “We used to have a GameCube there and play while our dad and mom would do all the work. Now it’s our turn.”
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