Since the Kebabery moved one month ago to 302 Wood Street, the Whitehorse business has done bustling business serving shawarma and falafel to the downtown lunch crowd.
There’s just one problem. The location’s cursed.
That conclusion is hard to avoid, when you consider the number of businesses that have suffered slow deaths under the same roof. Two bistros, one seafood restaurant and a cafe have all met their untimely demise there.
But Louie Gagnon, who owns the business with his wife, Bobbi Rhodes, is convinced their fate will be different.
“We hadn’t heard of the curse until we told people that it was where we were moving,” he said.
“We’re not afraid of the curse. We’re going to break the curse.”
It’s been almost a year since the restaurant first opened at its old location on Second Avenue. Gagnon and Rhodes started the venture because, as old hands in the hotel business, they decided it was time to become their own bosses.
“At the end of the rat race,” said Gagnon, “you’re still a rat.”
And they suspected that Whitehorse had room for another restaurant. They knew plenty of people who worked downtown and yearned for different lunch options.
The food had to be healthy, quick, and somehow unique.
Gagnon pounded the pavement on Main Street and asked pedestrians what kind of food was missing in town. Eventually, he decided there was an untapped demand for Middle Eastern fare.
Since the restaurant’s launch they’ve learned their share of lessons. The to-go style of service worked for lunch, but customers wanted something more formal during dinner, so table service is now offered during evenings.
They’ve hired more workers. Initially, it took about five minutes to receive a platter of food – speedy compared to most Whitehorse restaurants, but still sluggish compared to your typical shawarma stand. Today, that’s been sped up so that food is often ready by the time you’ve paid at the counter.
The young girls slinging shawarma meat behind the counter don’t wear red fezzes, as the owners originally did. (Gagnon still sports one, bought in Istanbul, and he holds out hope that his servers will one day be won over. “I think they want more stylish ones.”)
The menu’s been fiddled with. Falafel balls, once miserly in size, have grown plump.
Some items have disappeared. They tried selling seafood kebabs, with scallops, shrimp and veggies, to no avail. “They were absolutely delicious,” said Gagnon. “It just didn’t sell.”
And they’ve added new items, such as rotisserie chicken. “It’s kind of like that Swiss place,” said Gagnon, but with a Mediterranean flavour. Instead of being accompanied with fries, the Kebabery’s chicken comes with basmati rice and a variety of the restaurant’s salads.
There’s Greek salad and tabouleh, as well as more unfamiliar titles, such as fattoush – like Greek salad, but with bits of toasted pita, and no feta – and malfouf, a Lebanese coleslaw.
To peddle the rotisserie chicken, Gagnon spent summer evenings in a chicken costume, distributing handbills on Second Avenue. He has a thing for dressing up.
And Gagnon hoped to draw more attention to their location on Second Avenue – many pedestrians seemed oblivious to the business.
“You can’t miss a six-foot-two yellow chicken,” said Gagnon.
On Thursday, piles of beef and chicken sizzle away on the restaurant’s shawarma stands. The meat is thinly sliced, put in a pita, topped with hummus, tzatziki or hot sauce, and garnished with lettuce, tomato and a pickled turnip.
Gagnon would love to serve lamb shawarma, too. But he isn’t able to find an affordable supplier of wholesale lamb.
“It’s just not going to happen,” he said. The restaurant does sell lamb kebabs, with meat bought from Superstore, at a loss. It would be too costly to sell it as shawarma, as well.
Gagnon has big plans for the future.
He plans to rip up the building’s old deck this spring. And he envisions a licensed “sultan’s tent” in the back yard, in which customers would sit on cushions, quaff drinks and pick food from platters, all the while being entertained by belly dancers.
Similar establishments already exist in Calgary and Toronto. Gagnon already has dancers lined up.
“Believe it or not, they came to see us.”
He hopes to begin offering entertainment during dinners on Thursdays and Fridays this winter, if all goes well.
Neither Gagnon nor Rhodes are of Middle-Eastern extraction, although Rhodes’ step-dad is Lebanese, and Gagnon, who wears a dark goatee, is often asked if he’s Turkish.
Isn’t the Middle-Eastern schtick cultural appropriation? “I don’t think you need to be of that ethnicity to make food,” said Gagnon.
Giorgio’s Cuccina, he notes, hires Filipino cooks. So why not have a couple of Quebecois and someone of Norwegian descent serving up Middle Eastern fare?
“Yeah, we appropriate it. But we’re not exploiting it. We’re celebrating the food.”
American soldiers who served in Iraq have taken their spouses to the restaurant and said, “This is the food we ate,” said Gagnon.
In fact, they liked it better, because they knew the meat wasn’t really camel being passed off as beef.
A man from Turkey was thrilled to find real Turkish coffee, finely ground, boiled three times and served in a demitasse with Turkish delight.
And “the food lends itself to people with dietary requirements,” said Gagnon. Customers averse to gluten, dairy, wheat or meat have plenty to choose from.
The restaurant also aims to be green. During the day, food is served on compostable plates, and the cutlery is wooden. During evenings, sit-down customers are served on real plates.
“We have one garbage bag a day, and we don’t even fill it up,” said Gagnon.
Since moving, the restaurant has seen a surge of fresh faces entering its premises. “That’s a good thing,” said Gagnon. “It means you haven’t saturated the market yet.”
He doesn’t want his restaurant mixed-up with fast food.
“It’s good food, fast,” he said. “There’s a big difference.”
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