With Three Pita Kabobs, the Dada Family Makes Its Mark
Cultural IdentityJanuary 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
If war ever has its benefits, they rarely can be seen except in retrospect. Only after the damage has been assessed, the rubble cleared, and the broken repaired can a war be judged to have been good for something, for anything at all. That, perhaps, is how people feel when they experience first-hand losses through war – of home, business, family.
In 1975, Lebanon began a 25-year civil war that would displace nearly 1 million people. During the first year of the Lebanese exodus, Mohamad Dada left his home with little money and even less English, and moved to Tulare.
Brothers Chafic and Kareem Dada reflect on their father’s experiences in the United States, and acknowledge that his trials shaped their own lives. Who their father became affected who they have become, and indirectly they’re the products of that war. Almost 40 years ago, Mohamad arrived in Tulare with nothing, and now the Dadas own three successful restaurants in Visalia. Strangely, this community has benefited from a war that happened half a world away.
Chafic says his father’s decision to leave Lebanon was simple. “If you had the opportunity at that time to get away, you did.” And Mohamad took opportunities where he found them. He started a business buying clothes directly from manufacturers and selling to farmers in the Central Valley. “My dad had a van and he’d go to these farm labor camps and sell to them,” Kareem explains. Eventually, Mohamad opened his own retail shop in Kingsburg.
In the mid ‘90s, competition from larger corporations forced that shop to close. “Financial circumstances forced a change,” Chafic says. So Mohamad and his wife, Sahar, opened the Mediterranean Market and Deli, where they sold cheeses, olives, jams, spices and other Mediterranean foods. Sahar began cooking from home and selling sandwiches, hummus, spinach pockets. “My parents really found a niche in the market,” says Kareem, “and people love my mom’s cooking. If it weren’t for her, there wouldn’t be a Pita Kabob.”
Both Kareem and Chafic were influenced by their Lebanese-American heritage. “The culture was always in the house,” says Chafic, “from food to communication to music.” Arabic was even Chafic’s first language. But, he adds, they were like any other kids outside the house, “so we got the best of both worlds.” That blending of cultures is built into the Lebanese worldview, Chafic says. “Lebanon is different,” he explains. “Even though they’re in the Middle East, the Lebanese distinct themselves differently, more on the European side. There’s French influence, and English is spoken widely.”
While they are products of their culture, both Kareem and Chafic believe they were more influenced by their parents as individuals. Chafic recalls waking early and working with his father, “seeing the shipments and merchandise come in.” It inspired him to want to start his own business. “Seeing that my father came here with no money in his pocket and was able to make something of himself and seeing my mother do the same thing… that inspires us,” Chafic says. Kareem adds, “I’ve always worked with my father; I learned everything from him… he was always about taking care of family first.”
For a short period, the two brothers took different paths. Kareem stayed to help at the market and Chafic moved to Los Angeles for college, where he began to associate himself more with “corporate America.” But in 2004, when the lease on the building of their parents’ market was ending, Chafic moved back to Visalia. He and Kareem decided to rebrand the market as Pita Kabob. They rented a larger space and added new dishes to the menu.
The rebranding of Pita Kabob has been the Dadas’ way to take all their influences – family, culture and individual tastes – and express them cohesively. The restaurant and its menu “is a reflection of what we grew up with inside the house and outside,” Chafic says. You can still find traditional dishes, like a kabob and shwarma, but there are also burgers and rice bowls with a Mediterranean influence.
In the decade since Pita Kabob opened, the brothers have added two more restaurants, at Walnut and Akers and most recently downtown at Oak and Court. Each store is slightly different. “My parents are more traditional, old school,” says Kareem, “and Chafic is big into the craft beer scene.” At the downtown location there are 31 craft beers on tap, and the original store on Mooney still has a selection of groceries. “All three locations are a little unique,” says Kareem. “It’s been a rough journey,” says Chafic, “finding the identity we want.”
That identity, as a family, as Lebanese-Americans, as individuals, has drawn people to Pita Kabob. Of course, so has the food – the proof is in the pita. Their success possibly couldn’t have happened without their unique journey, which began in Lebanon. And that country’s loss is this community’s gain. Kareem reciprocates the sentiment. “We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for our customers,” he says. “They’ve supported us through the hard times and the good times.” •
Pita Kabob • www.pitakabob.com
227 N. Court St. • Visalia • (559) 627-2337
2226 S. Mooney Blvd. • Visalia • (559) 733-4016
5101 W. Walnut Ave • Visalia • (559) 635-7482