By James Saleem
On 3rd Street across from Courthouse Square located near Main and Ludlow there are five trees of indeterminate type and age on the Southwest corner. Peer closely between the center of them and lift your gaze upwards to see the sign for Olive Mediterranean Restaurant. The “O” in Olive having been replaced by a friendly olive caricature that has traded a pimento for a chef's hat.
As you walk in from the street you will hear music. The upbeat sounds of an “Oud” being strummed plays counterpoint to the chatter of the afternoon lunch crowd. Olive is busy today. The patrons represent a broad cross-section of the denizens of downtown Dayton. Municipal workers, business types, retirees and a family or two are seated in the dining room, partaking of food and company. The staff moves quickly from station to tables as groups of guests leave to be replaced by newcomers.
Photos by Allison Burns
If you are fortunate enough to be expected then you too will be greeted with a wave and exuberant "How are you my friend!" from the owner of “Olive” Fadi Shokri. Fadi puts the plates he is bussing down just long enough to deliver a handshake. "Let me finish up with the lunch” and motions with his hand towards the front of the restaurant “We can talk over by the window."
Should you be fortunate enough to find the lone “window” table unoccupied grab it. For those prone to people watching it is a treat. It affords a fantastic view of the dynamics of Dayton’s urban core. With the old Courthouse and City Hall becoming frames for the pace and space that investment and development is returning to this city. In contrast the walls of the restaurant are sparsely decorated. Freshly painted pastel olive (of course) coloured walls seem to yearn for framed memories. It feels “new” here, but doesn’t overtly scream “Global”. The Dal'ona melody playing overhead and the stylish brocade mandala pillows on the benches may be the only overt hints of foreign “culture” to the immediate senses. However, as the aromas from the grill come to the nostrils, you will be transported. The smell of grilled meat and spices excites and piques curiosity to explore the menu. Take a moment to decide between classic Mediterranean dishes like Baba Ganouj and Grape Leaves or take the leap and go for the Lamb Shank. Walk to the counter, place your order, grab a number and they will bring it to your table. As you dine, you will invariably meet Fadi. His energy envelops the place. He talks with the customers. He talks with the staff. He talks with his hands. He moves through the end of the lunch rush to finish cleaning tables then shuts the door. The restaurant closes from 3-5pm during the week to prepare for dinner. Fadi eases into the opposite chair at the “window” table to tell his story.
Fadi tells of his original desire to come to the United States: “(Coming here) has been my dream since I was young and in class” Fadi started learning the English language in 5th grade and is vocal on his motives to emigrate. “I want to come here because America is a country that lives under the law. We didn’t have that back home.”
Although the thought of coming to the US has been long held, Fadi was not a restaurateur in his native land of Palestine. His professional training was as a registered nurse. Graduating from Al al-Bayt University in Jordan. Then teaching as a Medical Surgical Lecturer at Alrawda Community College in Nablus, Palestine while working as an ICU Nurse at Al Itihad Hospital. In fact it was while treating an Ohio traveler who was recovering from surgery that he learned of Dayton. “A patient came to us with chest pain. He was from Dayton. He gave me his number and said ‘If you come to the U.S. come to Dayton” So on December 17,2009 (Fadi’s Birthday) he departed his homeland and emigrated. Arriving first in Missouri “I had a friend in Cape Girardeau who picked me up. Then we headed to Dayton.” Arriving on January 1, 2010. He called the number in his wallet and was welcomed to the Miami Valley.
As he speaks a plate arrives. Gyros. The aroma of lamb and spices is tantalizing. The tzatziki sauce fresh and savory. The seasoned potatoes are a local favorite. Fadi motions to go ahead and eat as he moves to get his 2 year old son Kathem, who is often at his side. Kathem is pictured by the counter, with the title of Owner. He is the source of Fadi’s joy. Kathem reaches across the table to taste the dish to Fadi’s surprise. “We can never get him to eat meat!” he laughs.
Fadi’s pride in the food served is evident when he speaks about the tender shoulder beef and lamb that is prepared in the kitchen. “Back in Palestine Gyros and Shawarma are common, like the burger stand here in America. What makes ours different is the fact that we grill and hand cut the meat. We twice cook it in a special marinade with about 20 different ingredients as opposed to putting it on a rotisserie all day.”
Sharing these memories makes Fadi’s face come alive. Exposing a passionate and engaging personality and kindling a fervor for living that pours out as he tells of the pitfalls of his transition.
Because the university that Fadi attended is not in an English speaking country he was required to take an English as a foreign language test for the American board.
“(I) planned to continue nursing career. But I come here to take the test and even though I know all the material I had to take the tests in English. So I had to translate in my head and by the time I look up the time was expiring and less than half of the questions had been answered. So I had to do something different.”
Initially it was difficult, taking jobs he could find, where he could find them. Working as a clerk in drive-throughs and grocery stores in Dayton and New Carlisle while enrolled in business management classes at Sinclair Community College. “I learned business. I knew the choice was to go back or stay here. So I had to have a business. Any business!” How that business was achieved also has its roots in serendipity. “My brother Mahdi’s old boss went went to perform Hajj (The annual obligatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) and shared a room with a Palestenian pilgrim who owns a restaurant in Georgia. This man has been a chef for over 20 years. He says if we come to Lawrenceville he will train us! No charge if we agree to keep his recipes secret. Mahdi spent a week there learning recipes and how to work in a restaurant. That was the beginning of Olive”
In August 2015, Fadi and his brother opened in North Dayton as a Hookah lounge and cafe but regulations dictated that food and hookah could not coexist inside. The realities of a Midwestern Winter made outdoor Shisha smoking a non-starter and again a choice had to be made. They chose to reopen as a full table service restaurant.
After three years in North Dayton, regular customers Andrew White and Scott Stone convinced Fadi to relocate downtown, and become part of the revitalization. Around the same time, his brother left. So Fadi built a new team and kept improving his best-selling and secret Shawarma recipe.
Fadi tells of how they have had success in catering and how much the restaurant staff feels like family. “We all work in this together. Not me the big “owner” and “them” the workers. We all cook, we all clean dishes, we all bus tables, we all help the customers.” The spirit of community is apparent as a patron comes by to speak with him. Hands on her stomach. A look of concern on her face. She tells Fadi she and her husband are expecting their first child. “My husband is excited. But I’m scared.” They share a moment and It’s obvious that she is a regular and Fadi is not just the big “owner” but a friend.
At Olive Mediterranean Grill. - Ethnosh Dayton