No ‘rest’ in restaurant biz for Saraya Cafe
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org September 12, 2013 2:03AM
Baker Abed Abufara prepares bread for meals that day at Saraya Cafe & Restaurant in Wroth. Bread is baked daily. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 12, 2013 2:04AM
If there’s one thing Isam Samara has learned about the restaurant business, it’s that it is work.
A lot of work.
“It’s tougher than I ever imagined,” he said.
The 48-year-old Orland Park man, who already owns several gas stations outside Chicago and in Indiana, had the itch to open a restaurant in a building he and his partner own in Worth.
One by one, former tenants moved elsewhere, extensive renovations took place, and an enclosed porch was added to the south side of the building.
Finally, six months ago, the Saraya Cafe & Restaurant opened for business at 7011 W. 111th St.
The restaurant business can be a fickle one, with some closing nearly as fast as they open. But with a half-year under his belt, Samara is cautiously optimistic that he’s in this for the long haul.
“We’re still going, but it hasn’t taken off yet, not the way we projected it would,” he said on a recent afternoon in the restaurant’s hookah lounge.
“We still have a way to go. We have not advertised as well as we should have,” Samara said. “Word of mouth is not enough. Our place is huge; we can seat well over 400.”
Until last year, the building was used for an accountant’s office, a Seattle Sutton franchise, a lawyer’s office and a small hookah lounge.
“We bought the building in 2005. It was a coincidence, the tenant with the hookah lost his license, we wanted to open what he had, and we decided to open the restaurant. The idea started small. By the time we were done, it was 10 times bigger than what we envisioned,” Samara said with a smile.
“Then we started seeing the need. In our community, the people don’t go out to bars, but they go to socialize at a hookah lounge,” he said.
A hookah is basically an ornate water pipe with individual tubes through which flavored tobacco is puffed.
“It’s a pretty cool thing in our culture. It’s a socializing centerpiece, if you will. Gather round. Spend the time. Hang out. Of 10 people, maybe one smokes the hookah,” he said. “Ninety-five, 98 percent of our people don’t go to bars. They need a place to hang out.”
The growing Arabic population in Worth and nearby towns was a reason Samara decided to give the restaurant a try. There are Middle Eastern standards — such as baba ghanouj, hummus, falafel and kabobs — on the menu, but also American favorites such as burgers, steaks and tuna.
Samara is trying to reach out to non-Arabic customers, hoping they become regulars. He knows he has to expand his customer base in order to survive.
“I don’t even have an Arabic word on my sign because we do appeal to everyone. We have all cuts of steaks. We have the best lasagna. I have a chef who is phenomenal making lasagna,” he said.
Saraya had a booth at Worth Days.
“I want these neighbors to be my customers regardless of what nationality, what culture they are,” Samara said. “You have to prove it to them over and over again that this is a great atmosphere here, great food. We have to make sure we are consistent with the food every time they come out. I’m learning that.
“Nothing is easy, especially in this kind of economy. It used to be the other way around. Not any more,” he said.
Saraya is open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily but does most of its business after 8 p.m. when folks crowd the hookah lounge, puffing on their choice of 50 flavors of tobacco.
Samara is not much of a smoker, but when he does partake, he prefers Gummi Bear-flavored tobacco.
Customers can try a hookah for $14.99. Add in sipping some tea or Turkish coffee, and the experience will set one back 20 bucks on average, he said.
Chef Mohammad Alsmadi runs a tight ship in the kitchen, which is open until 1 a.m. Baker Abed Abufara oversees baking the breads that are served with meals. There are 25 employees. The restaurant has private rooms that can be rented out for parties. There also are kids menus and daily specials.
For more information, visit the Saraya Cafe and Restaurant page on Facebook.com or call (708) 361-1100.