Starting from Scratch..Bringing the Middle East to the South

Story by Kimberly Brown

Marwan Aboul-Zelof, founder of ABU’S Gyros & More, carries on generations of family traditions and culinary flavor as he introduces his Middle Eastern culture into the River Valley area.

Marwan Aboul-Zelof, 28, comes from a family of culinary artists — three generation’s worth, to be exact. With two grandmothers, a father and a mother in the restaurant business, Marwan was destined to follow in their footsteps. Raised in Lebanon and Iraq by his mother and father, Marwan was instilled with family-oriented and hospitable values.

“I have many memories of my childhood in Kuwait. In some ways, the Middle East is very similar to the South. Hospitality is a huge deal. There are many family gatherings, throughout many times of the year.”

Marwan continues to incorporate these same values in his everyday life at work and at home. His business partner, Marci, is his wife. Together, they share the dream that Abu’s will take flight in to a successful interpretation of Marwan’s Mediterranean culture.

In 1990, when Marwan was seven, he and his family headed to San Diego, Calif. They went to visit his grandparents where Marwan’s grandmother had opened one of the area’s first Middle Eastern restaurants.

“It was a small, hole-in-the-wall building but the food was so good,” Marwan recalls. “It was more home-cooked, and it won many awards. From the late 70’s until the early 90’s, until she passed away, the restaurant was considered ‘the spot’ to get good, authentic food of our culture.”

Two days before Marwan and his family were to return to Kuwait, his hometown was invaded by Iraqi military insurgents, triggering a dangerous war zone. This war, later known as America’s Operation Desert Storm, would hinder Marwan from ever returning tohisnativelands. Marwanandhisfamily remained in the States under “refugee status” and eventually received their citizenships.

Learning from the grandmother’s techniques and trades of the business, Marwan’s mother and sister continued the restaurant striving to keep the business going after her death.

“They ran my grandmother’s restaurant for about three years, but it just wasn’t right. The area had gone downhill since the restaurant’s opening, and it became a rough neighborhood.”

Working as a crisis intervention counselor in San Diego years later, Marwan continued his giving nature. As a hotline counselor, Marwan encountered people in need, from battered women and alcohol and drug abusers to homeless war veterans. He accredits his benevolent behavior to his roots.

“It was part of my culture; I was family- raised. I witnessed a closely-bound community that was always helping each other. I had good parents, a good church, and good morals.”

After the hotline work ended, Marwan’s period of unemployment and his involvement in his local church sparked the idea to make a change.

“I was raised Catholic; my mom and dad are both Christian-Catholic. Although most people in the Middle East are Muslims, there are many Christians there as well. It’s very similar to the ‘Bible Belt’ in the South.”

While at a church function,Marwan met Waldron-born-and-raised Marci, and they instantly connected. Soon after, the two were married, and headed back to Marci’s home state.

My father was working in Arkansas, and with Marci being student at Tech, the move just made more sense. I wanted to do something different. I wanted a fresh start.”

Marwan and Marci then decided to recreate Marwan’s family traditions in a new area, using Middle Eastern food as the basis. With no training, only memories and experiences from his families’ businesses and a small budget from his and Marci’s savings account, Marwan and his wife rented a small building on North Arkansas Avenue, and began to make their restaurant plans.

Marwan says, “I learned the restaurant business from both grandmothers; one in California, and the other in Wisconsin. My father also owned a restaurant, and my mother was highly noted for her cooking. once even offered a job on a cooking show.” He adds, “I had never run a restaurant, but I knew how to cook.”

Marwan’s brother joined them to help with labor, and their father lent equipment from his previous business. Marwan’s mother arrived the opening week to donate recipes and finalize the menu options.

By July of 2011, Marwan’s idea was up-and-running. Now the manager and operator of ABU’S Gyros & More, Marwan describes his new business as a great learning experience.

“In any job, you learn; there is always a learning curve. And we are still learning. We are filled with different emotions: excitement, fear, anxiety, and everything between. At first, we were really busy; we were excited. Now, it’s getting slower, but we are still thankful.”

Marwan, in light of the current economic recession status, knows that food businesses are taking a hit and that revenue can adversely be affected. A humble man, he knew the risk he would be taking by opening a restaurant such as his in such a culturally scarce environment.

“People sometimes forget that there are other cultures and other foods, but often, they will be open to them, if they are introduced the right way,” he says. “I want people to know who we are; many people in the area are still not aware we are open. There is something unique and special about our food, and I want it to be inviting to everyone. I want to share what I have learned with the community. I learned from excellent cooks, and our food has been passed down from generations. I take pride in it because these are my families’ recipes.”

ABU’S menu is simple, a business

choice made by Marwan himself. “My grandmother’s restaurant in San Diego had about 15 different Mediterranean food items; we only have three. It was a business decision we made from the beginning. Our food is simple but authentic. All of our products such as our hummus are made from scratch, and we are proud of that.”

With only three items (gyros, chicken shawarma, and falafel) and sides of hummus, pita, and rice, ABU’S can avoid overhead expenses, save preparation time, and spend less time cooking while maintaining quality results. Marwan explains that prep time for certain foods such as falafel could consume more than 15 hours.

“When we first started, we were going through at least five gallons of lemonade and four gallons of hummus. I’ve learned that you can’t be everything; you have to just be the best at what you are capable of being.”

Only Marwan and his family members hold the secret to ABU’S signature item, Rosewater Lemonade, a tangy Mediterranean blend of citrus fruits merged with an American lemonade flavor. The delicious beverage recipe has been handed down from Marwan’s grandmother, through many generations. Outside the quaint drive-thru patio is a sign that reads, “Best gyros in town.”

Marwan smiles at the realization that ABU’S has the only gyros in town. “I definitely feel there is an advantage that we are the only Middle Eastern cuisine in the area. I like being the first to try something out. We welcome people of all cultures to come experience our cooking. This is our food, from our culture, and it’s an honor to be able to share it with the community.”

This sense of community is important to Marwan and the staff of ABU’S, as they participate with non-profit programs, such as Tom’s Tuesdays. On Tuesdays of every week, eachcustomerwhowearstheirTom’sshoes receives a 10 percent discount on their meal.

ABU’S has recently changed its hours, to accommodate to a variety of customer schedules, and the restaurant menu is subject to change, to bring more options in the future.

Marwan shares thoughts from his late grandmother. “Take pride in what you do, stay honest to what you do well, and most importantly, take care of people.”

Though we cannot meet her, we can experience what she and her ancestors have created, and we can do that through Marwan’s culinary expressions, right here in Russellville.

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