Ahmed Saffarini hopes to bring the Middle East into the middle of East Memphis.
To that end, Saffarini has opened Pita's Mediterranean Restaurant at 5030 Poplar in a strip shopping center in front of Office Depot and Wild Oats Market. Saffarini sees an opportunity and believes he has found the place and the food to make it work.
Saffarini, who is from Palestine, used to own Sinbad Café in the University of Memphis area. He sold it about a year ago and used the money to open Pita. And while Pita will offer Middle Eastern cuisine like Sinbad, Saffarini considers it a whole different animal. The concentration here is on lunch. The traffic on Poplar and the lunchtime crowds from Clark and White Station towers put the restaurant in a prime location, Saffarini says.
Plus, he's got a culinary ringer: his shawarma. "It's layers of steak marinated for a whole day and cooked very slowly with 32 spices," he says. "We know spices, and that's what cooking is all about."
In addition to shawarma, Pita offers other Mediterranean favorites, such as falafel, hummus, tabouleh salad, and dishes built around pita bread. A typical meal costs around $7, including drink. For lighter fare, there is salad or grape-leaf dishes. For dessert, Pita has baklava, a layered pastry soaked in honey.
Saffarini is not one to curb his enthusiasm when talking about his food. "I swear to God," he says, "our kabob will melt in your mouth. We know the secret."
When Saffarini moved to the U.S., he chose Memphis because his brother, Anan, lives here, and he had heard good things about the University of Memphis. He arrived six days before 9/11.
Saffarini started at the U of M, studying computer science. But he had always wanted his own business. He saw the opportunities in the U.S. "Here, there is a way to be successful if you are good," he says. "It's very hard to start anything over there [in Palestine]."
So he started Sinbad Café on Highland and opened Odyssey Wireless in Hickory Hill. He sold Sinbad because, he explains, "I want to try my luck somewhere else."
Every new business venture has its challenges, particularly restaurants. Saffarini, however, discovered a few extra obstacles while opening Pita - not the least of which was finding employees who know how to prepare the dishes. Where do you go to find a good shawarma maker in town? Saffarini had to train his new cooks in a new kind of cooking. "This food is very hard to deal with," he says.
He did not rush the opening. He secured the spot in January, hung a banner announcing Pita's impending arrival, and began the process. An opening date a few weeks away turned into a few months. He wanted to be sure everything was ready before inviting guests. On June 28th, he replaced the "Coming Soon" banner with one reading "Grand Opening."
Saffarini is familiar with the statistic that 80 percent of restaurants fail shortly after opening. "It's very hard," he says. "You are always looking for perfection. You always look at the little things." He is giving all his attention to the restaurant, and his cousin will be taking over Odyssey Wireless.
In all, Saffarini is pretty confident about Pita's chances. "Memphis is not like Chicago or Houston where you can get any type of food," he says. While there are other Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurants in town, he sees Pita as filling an unmet need. And he doesn't have just the Middle Eastern community in mind. According to Saffarini, "We are targeting everybody." n
Pita Mediterranean, 5030 Poplar (683-5242), is open from 11 am to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. They do not serve alcoholic beverages.