All Wrapped up: House of Falafel
The first of many falafel stops
In the U.S., the concept of fast food begets the thought of greasy, salty golden fries, the satisfyingly tangible crunch of a potato chip and the decadent, juicy allure of a good burger. Fast food in the Middle East lands on an entirely different spectrum — one that fosters ideas of mouthwatering grilled wraps, nutty pastries that flake at the slightest touch and the quintessential amalgam of legumes, spices and herbs known as the falafel.
One of the few Mediterranean restaurants in Cupertino, House of Falafel has been offering locals a taste of this delectable fare for the last 15 years. Once part of a chain of four restaurants, House of Falafel now rests at the intersection of Stevens Creek Blvd and Miller Ave as a lone testament to their legacy.
Owner Tanzeer Ahmed opened his first restaurant in Cupertino in 2004 when he saw an opportunity in the lack of Middle Eastern food options. Ahmed explains how his chef’s skill, use of fresh ingredients, recipes and loyal customers have been the backbone of his business.
“We use the freshest ingredients, and I wanted [to follow] the same principle and keep it minimal and something that is chosen by people,” Ahmed said. “That’s the core Middle Eastern food and ingredients that are on the menu. “
As a small, community-centric restaurant, House of Falafel has served as a continuous facet of the neighborhood. Despite the emerging technologies that have commercialized and transformed the direction of the food service industry, Ahmed does not invest in promotional campaigns but instead trusts his customers to market the unique experience his business provides.
“I’ve known customers from day one, and they keep coming back, and we interact on a personal one on one basis, and just a wonderful thing,” Ahmed said. “It’s a good place to meet people, and I’ve always believed that when we give customers a consistent product, a fair amount of portion and a reasonable price.”
Junior Samer Awad is one of those customers. Visiting once or twice a month, Awad notes how he sees the restaurant as a comfortable, familiar place where he can always order the same food and know that it will be delicious.
“I’ve been going there my entire life — I love that place,” Awad said. “I don’t really explore Cupertino that much because it’s not very diverse and the only thing that’s really stuck with me is House of Falafel … I’m one of the few Middle Easterners here and I don’t see many other [Middle Eastern restaurants] around them.”
Awad believes the limited selection of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurants is partly due to fact it’s not as “popular’’ as American chains. To him, the quality of food is attributed to the restaurant being family-owned.
“I feel like there’s a couple of good Middle Eastern places, but we just need more good restaurants,” Awad said. “Cupertino is not very well-known for its food and we need to work on helping small businesses, all these places that actually do have good food, to sort of just gain more popularity than all these chain restaurants that you see around the country.”
Senior Mahima Kumar, who occasionally visits House of Falafel, sympathizes with small business owners who do not necessarily have the security of a large corporation behind them. Kumar believes customers drift towards larger franchises as they are more familiar with the menu options. However, Kumar says going to locally owned restaurants is worth the risk, specifically with international food as it’s more likely to be authentic.
“If you go into a big chain, odds are you’ve probably been there before and you know exactly what you want,” Kumar said. “If you want real authentic [food], you’re probably going to want to go to people who you know have learned how to cook that food because that’s their culture, and most the time, you get that only from family-owned businesses.”
Ahmed classifies House of Falafel as a local business because it is not part of a franchise and is run by only Ahmed. With some prior experience in business before House of Falafel, Ahmed believes successfully running a local restaurant requires a lot of passion and dedication.
“When it comes to food, you should never hesitate to spend,” Ahmed said. “Promote the local business. It helps the community [by bringing] tax dollars back to the community. Ordering from an online company, the dollars are going somewhere else. Keep the money local.”
The time commitment required by an owner means little room for a social life and time with family after a full day of work. For Ahmed, this was the main factor in his decision to sell his other three local restaurants. He doesn’t mind, however, as he says he lives in the present and is grateful for all House of Falafel has achieved so far.
“One of the toughest businesses to get into is the restaurant business,” Ahmed said. “You’re on a call 24/7… It’s good money, people always have to eat but is it worth your life, your family and the social commitment that you have?”