MEZZA LEBANESE KITCHEN - The evolution of a family owned take-out empire
This, still exists?” Tony looks at his brother Peter exasperated and drops his head into his hands. “Look, I’m sorry,” I say, pausing. “I’m a bit embarrassed, but honestly I just default to donairs, sometimes a falafel. No offense.” Tony raises his head and looks at his brother again; they share a hearty laugh. Well, I guess if I’m going to try chicken shawarma for the first time, it should be like this—feeling the burn from the boys who have taken up the reins of a legendary family-run business honing Halifax’s perfect shawarma. Believe me, I’m definitely feeling it.
On a December afternoon, I’m posted up at Mezza Lebanese Kitchen on Barrington Street with the Nahas brothers, Tony and Peter. The two of them are gregarious, funny, engaged, and clearly driven. Let’s just say it’s really not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. They regale me with stories about the family, secret sauces and future plans to take over the world one shawarma at a time, or at a rate of 1000-plus per day depending on how you want to measure it.
In 1990, their father Elias Nahas, a Lebanese immigrant, purchased Tony’s Donair in the Halifax Shopping Centre and christened it “Venus Pizza”. Little did they realize at the time that this was only the start of a mini-empire; ironically, this location still remains 25 years later and is the only one that has not been updated (yet) to join what is now Mezza Lebanese Restaurant Group. Succession locations have included ones on Gottingen Street (1997, now defunct), Barrington Street (1999), Quinpool Road (2007, a full-service restaurant), Burnside (2012, including a full catering kitchen) and Scotia Square (2014). This year, they’re opening one in Lower Sackville as well as, wait for it, another in Dubai, where their sisters now live.
Location. Location. Location. The boys explain to me how important visibility, high traffic, and now a small footprint is to choosing the right place to expand. The two of them admit they grew up working the business along with their sisters, Laura and Raquel. Many recesses and lunches were spent in the mall food court, and when they were old enough, behind the counter they went for shifts alongside their mother building a solid foundation for this family business.
In 2012, the parents weaned themselves out. They had been taking progressively longer annual visits home to northern Lebanon, chalking up as long as a six-week stint towards the end. After over 20 years in training, trust was built and the boys assumed official responsibility. They had begun to break away from their standard pizza, fries, and subs earlier on, fighting their father to simplify the menu and focus and embrace their niche: authentic Lebanese cuisine.
When you take a hard look at Halifax’s restaurant history, a vast interconnected web of immigrant families reveals itself. A hard-working Lebanese backbone, if you will, that has been underpinning our culinary scene for years. On the father’s side in this family alone, it’s all the brothers. You can stroll up Quinpool Road and in mere minutes hit one after the other: Shawarma Stop, Sicilian Pizza, and King of Donair. On the mother’s side, it’s Tony’s Donair & Pizza and The Golden Bakery. Not to mention, their poignant piece of history at another iconic Halifax landmark, pizza corner.
Oh, pizza corner, you strange, messy little rite of passage. Many have found themselves here as a denouement to a booze-fuelled evening, noshing into a donair, this beloved street food of ours. Shaved meat from a spit seared quickly on a grill, smothered in a garlicky, sugary cream sauce and packed into a pita with fresh onions and tomatoes. “You have to try a donair!” How many times have you heard this or heard the words come out of your own mouth? What reason would one have to move away from a donair to try a shawarma? I know I couldn’t get passed it. Here we stand, teetering on this corner after a night out, witnessing the last of the hookups, a rumble or two; a donair has saved my life one too many times in this setting.
Back in the early nineties, when the next generation of young Nahas cousins were barely able to see over those countertops, there was an infamous pizza corner war between the elder Nahas brothers, where slices dropped in price, loomed in size, and were even given out free to prove a point. This battle lasted about five years, and those who bore witness at home now strive to ensure business doesn’t get in the way of family; they still gather for family meals on Sundays.
The main Mezza experiences I’ve had to date have all happened at Mezza Restaurant on Quinpool Road. In my past life at the Atlantic Film Festival, with its close proximity to the Oxford Theatre, I spent many hours here hosting receptions for films, sharing plates of mezza with excited festival staff or conversely a stiff drink with a nervous filmmaker who was awaiting the reaction from the audience on their inaugural screening.
I have a fondness for this space and this style of eating shared small plates amongst friends where you get to try a whole bunch of delectable little bites. Mezza means “appetizer,” and appetizers are meant to be shared. “You never have mezza by yourself,” affirms Tony. I’m salivating just thinking about dishes of tangy baba ghanouj with roasted eggplant, fresh taboulé (punchy parsley salad), hummus, warek enab (stuffed grape leaves), olive tapenade, kebbé (lamb and beef), and falafel. I’m constructing mini-sandwiches by the minute, melding the tastes together, scooping up hummus and olives with a bit of lamb into a warm pita. Next bite, a piece of falafel gets dredged through the baba ghanouj, and on we go.
I digress, as this article is not about this restaurant specifically. It’s about where the family is headed with their focus on a new brand of fast-casual operations with small footprints, not this old jewel in the family crown. They have affection for this space as well—it just doesn’t obviously fit the new model at a staggering 4,500 square feet and 150 seats. It’s not going anywhere at the moment.
Tony and Peter share a passion for their business, and it’s infectious. There’s a clear division of duties between them and a great deal of respect for one another. Tony is more hands-on with the food production, out front with customers and onsite with construction. Peter tends to handle more of the backend finances, business plans, marketing, and working with staff.
We can talk other menu items, but honestly shawarma is driving this bus, racking up 80 per cent of their overall sales annually. Peter and Tony have circumnavigated the globe together in search of the best shawarma: Germany, Montréal, Croatia, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Vienna, Spain, Lebanon and more. “Who is second best,” I ask coyly. After eating up to four a day and scrutinizing the nuances in sauces, pickles, thickness of breads, they reached the consensus that Lebanon was number one, followed by Spain, then New York. They admit that a lot of it had to do with the experiences they were having at the time, too. Tony points to a man ordering at the counter. “The shawarma he is about to have is very different from the one he would be having at 4 am.”
They’ve created a solid demand for shawarma (you might even call it a cult) along with their secret garlic sauce. Peter once tried to calculate how much garlic they went through yearly but stopped once he reached half an Olympic swimming pool. There is also an art to constructing the spit and a variance of size and scale according to the day of the week—40 kilograms on weekdays and approaching 70 kilograms on the weekends. Peter reckons he could wake up out of a long sleep and be able to tell what day of the week it was just by looking at one. Two thousand kilograms of fresh chicken per week comes from Eden Valley in Berwick and is combined with Lebanese spices from a wholesaler in Montréal. The chicken is deboned, prepped, and marinated in secret sauces at their production kitchen in Burnside by “our guy.” Wait a minute. Hold up. Who is “our guy”? Is he family? Tony laughs, “He’s like family.” Just one guy? “Only my father and I and our guy know the recipes, not even Peter,” confirms Tony.
I feel like mounting a stakeout. We’ll call it “Operation Shawarma.” We’ll find “our guy.” We’ll get that secret sauce recipe. After seven years with the business, they felt they could bestow the family’s secret recipes on “our guy.” He is so good he now prepares it covertly for all of their locations. No staff is compromised, as no one is privy to these recipes. Thus, all is safe.
At the end of the interview, they send me packing with two full shawarma plates with all the fixings: hummus, taboulé, pickles, pita, falafel, lentils, and rice, and the chicken with garlic sauce. I’m grateful to not have to eat it in their presence; it is all about the takeaway after all. At home, I post a quick Instagram shot before I dig in, and a good friend declares that this platter could be a last meal on death row for him. One heck of an endorsement! It was beyond succulent, the chicken was flavourful and that garlic sauce—no vampires will darken this door. It took too long to get here, and I’m hooked. You can be sure the next version I have at 4 am some sordid evening will be different from what I just consumed, but just as delicious.