20 Years, 20 Stories: Manakeesh Cafe

Feb 14, 2017 4 months ago

University City District launched in 1997, as dedicated residents, institutions and businesses came together to create an organization to help transform their community. Throughout 2017 we will be celebrating our 20th anniversary by holding community events and reflecting on the accomplishments of our organization, community, and the many people who made the work possible.

45th and Walnut is home to three important establishments for University City’s Muslim community, all of which have become anchors for the entire neighborhood. On the southwest corner there’s Saad’s, an eatery that’s been specializing in falafel, shawarma, baklava, and halal sandwiches for over 20 years. On the northeast corner is the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, or AICP, a mosque serving as a spiritual home for Muslims from around the neighborhood and around the world. And on the southeast corner is Manakeesh Cafe, a business conceived from a desire to support the Muslim community. 

Manakeesh is an establishment as diverse as the neighborhood surrounding it. It’s at once a café, juice bar, meeting place, bakery, and restaurant serving authentic Lebanese food. The customers are diverse, too—university students, neighbors, parents of children attending local schools, and worshipers visiting the mosque meet and mingle in the cavernous former bank. 

On a rainy winter morning we caught up with Abd Ghazzawi, Manakeesh’s general manager and one of the founding partners. Abd (pronounced A-bid) acts as the face of the organization, whether he’s serving customers behind the counter, making juices, or promoting the restaurant to the larger community. 

“I basically grew up on this block,” Abd explains over coffee. “My father has been an imam at the mosque since it opened.”

AICP, a congregation of about 300 members, formed in 1993 when a group of worshipers purchased an abandoned Methodist Church at 4431 Walnut Street. From the look of the building, which evokes Islamic architecture, it’s hard to believe that this neighborhood anchor wasn’t always a mosque.   

While Abd is the face of Manakeesh, the original idea came from his partner, Dr. Wissam Chatila, a Lebanese-born pulmonologist and a longtime AICP member. He had a vision of a community spot where people could congregate and enjoy Lebanese cuisine, and AICP, which owned the former bank at 4420 Walnut Street, encouraged Chatila to consider the space for his café concept in 2009. While the doctor had the idea and finances, he needed assistance to turn his idea into a reality.

Ali Ghazzawi, one of the imams at AICP and another immigrant from Lebanon, suggested his son Abd. “I had a background in sales, marketing, and real estate,” the younger Ghazzawi explains. “I’m the people person.” Chatila brought Abd on as a partner to focus on the marketing efforts, while he handled behind-the-scenes details with help from the community and University City District. 

From the start, the team sought to engage the neighborhood.  “We knew right away that the community had to be on board,” Abd says. “We went out of our way to meet with people from Spruce Hill, UCD, the Merchants Fund.” UCD helped the new business owners connect with the community, which was instrumental in getting Manakeesh off the ground.  The neighborhood was eager to turn the long vacant building into a business that could invigorate the block. “Community support is almost as important as getting construction permits and other details sorted out,” Abd explains. 

Through 2010, as the restaurant plans were coming together, Abd felt like he was coming home. “It was nice to be able to come back and come full circle. I was working a corporate job and didn’t get to spend as much time in the community as I’d like to. Manakeesh allowed me to do that again.” 

Manakeesh was an instant hit when it opened in 2011. The opening menu featured traditional desserts like semolina cookies, baklava, French pastries, and, with an authentic brick oven imported from Beirut, a focus on Lebanese flatbread, Manakeesh’s namesake. Abd describes the café as a crossroads that connects the universities with the Muslim community, and he’s right—according to UCD’s diversity index, the intersection of 45th and Walnut ranks among the most diverse sections in all of Philadelphia. 

“At first, we were like a best-kept secret. Now the word has gotten out so it’s more mainstream. On the weekends we get an unbelievable mix of people.” He smiles. “I’ve had people tell me they come up once a month from DC or down from New York just to eat here. For them to come from a major metropolis that has tons of Arabs, and say they don’t have something like we do, it’s eye-opening.”

Manakeesh has worked closely with UCD throughout its existence. The café hosted one of UCD’s first Parklets, our small, temporary parks. They’ve participated in University City Dining Days, and have been featured in our annual State of University City report. “UCD’s support has been essential to where we’re at right now,” Abd says.  

The community relationship has continued, too. Manakeesh hosts community events and supports local organizations like Parent Infant Center and Spruce Hill. They hire both locals and immigrants from around the world; their new pastry chef, an Algerian immigrant who could barely speak English when he started, is now one of their top employees. 

The support has been reciprocated. “We live in a very inclusive neighborhood and I never felt differently being here since we’ve opened. Any time something happens—not just here but in general—the community goes out of its way to let us know they appreciate us, and see if we’re doing okay. It’s pretty awesome—somebody recently donated some flowers to us. Things like that—they’re really nice gestures.” 

Manakeesh has come a long way in its six-year history. While Abd thinks it took over six years for the concept to come together, they’ve turned a profit every year they’ve been in business, a rare feat for a first time restaurant. The café’s “people person” is modest about the success. “It was all stumbling and bumbling, figuring out what we’re doing. Good food and good people have carried us.” Each year the owners introduce something new to drive business: outdoor seating the first year, the juice bar in their second year, an expansion, and this past year a new charcoal grill. 

So what’s next for Manakeesh? “At this point, we’re getting close to maximizing what we can get out of this space," Abd says. "Maybe we can do something on a smaller scale at a second location. We have a solid staff where everyone knows their role, we have a good grasp of our concept, so now we’re thinking about branding the name we’ve established for ourselves and taking that next step.” 

Stay tuned for more information on those plans. In the meantime, stop by to grab some coffee, a dessert, or one of their delicious Manakeesh sandwiches. 

UCD offers assistance to help business owners find retail spaces, connect with City departments, work through permitting issues, and earn support for storefront improvements. If you’re in need of technical assistance, contact Ryan Spak, Project Rehab Manager, at [email protected].

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