Feature Story

Najwa’s Catering

Photo by Kris Kathmann

A simple sandwich launched Najwa Massad’s career.

She operates Najwa’s Catering in Mankato, providing everything from box lunches to sit-down dinners, serving as few as five and as many as 2,500. She caters weddings, funerals, anniversaries and company events ranging from in-office lunches to picnics and parties. Massad has been the exclusive caterer for all events at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center since it opened in 1995.

Najwa and her husband, John, once owned Meray’s, a popular Mankato restaurant that introduced Minnesotans to the “schwarma,” an Americanized version of a Lebanese sandwich. Meray’s closed in 1997, a victim of too much success, too little time and a scarcity of parking in downtown Mankato. But Najwa and John still sell thousands of schwarmas to catering customers and at Massad’s, their walk-up restaurant in the River Hills Mall Food Court.

Although she claims to be an ordinary “meat-and-potatoes Minnesotan,” Massad takes a Mediterranean/French approach to cooking, preferring to bake, sauté or charbroil rather than to fry. (She makes exceptions for French fries and onion rings.)

What sets her apart from other meat-and-potato Minnesotans, beyond her culinary and hostessing skills, is her ethnic background and her experiences in the devastating Lebanese civil war, dodging snipers, tanks, bombs and whistling artillery shells.

Born in Lebanon, she moved to Mankato with her family in 1960 when she was five. In 1971, when she was 15, her family returned to Lebanon to visit relatives. There she met handsome young John Massad, whose family owned a restaurant in her hometown of Zahleh. “I fell in love, married him and stayed in Lebanon,” Najwa said, summing up a lightning-quick teenage romance. The 16-year-old bride finished high school in Zahleh, had a daughter and didn’t return to the U.S. until 1975 to watch her brother graduate from high school in Mankato. She brought along her husband and their daughter, 3-year-old Meray, for whom the Massads would name the restaurant they opened 11 years later, in 1984.

The 1975 visit to Mankato lasted three years because Lebanon’s civil war intensified, with Christian and Moslem factions competing for control of the country. “We couldn’t return because it was so bad,” Najwa said

That left the Massads stranded in Mankato. Although John had broad experience operating his family’s restaurants in Zahleh, “nobody would hire him because he couldn’t speak English. They didn’t realize he was so talented,” Najwa said. She told Catholic nuns at Good Counsel Academy, where she had attended school, about John’s need for a job. They put him to work in Good Counsel’s kitchen.

“He started out opening cans and washing dishes, because they didn’t think he could cook. One day they brought a bushel of apples for him to peel and cut, thinking it would take him all day.” But John took a sharp knife to the apples and finished in an hour. “They were impressed,” Najwa recalled. (It takes superb skill with a knife to prepare the ingredients for a schwarma.) Eventually, John became head of Good Counsel’s kitchen, which fed about 400 boarding students and sisters.

He returned briefly to Lebanon in 1977 to help his family open a third restaurant in Zahleh. “They couldn’t get it going and they needed his help, so his father asked him to go back,” Najwa said. “The culture over there is, if your dad asks you to do something, you do it.”

After helping launch the Zahleh restaurant, John came back to his Good Counsel job, but quit in 1978 and took his family back to Lebanon. By now, Meray had a sister, Karla, born in 1977 in Mankato. The Massads moved into the first floor of a three-story Zahleh apartment building. Najwa stayed home with the children while John helped manage his family’s three restaurants. But life wasn’t routine, wasn’t normal. “The war was still going on. It wasn’t a safe environment,” Najwa said.

In 1979, during a visit to Mankato, John began experimenting with an Americanized schwarma. In Lebanon, it’s made with slices of marinated lamb garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, served in pocket bread. Realizing that lamb isn’t particularly popular in the U.S., John “wanted to see if people would like a schwarma made with beef,” Najwa said. With the help of Phillip Etre, the Lebanese general manager of food service at Minnesota State University, John served beef schwarmas to students for three months. “That’s the way John is. He doesn’t jump into anything until he tries it and tries it,” Najwa said. “The response from students was phenomenal, so John knew then that it would be accepted here.”

John tucked away the results of his sandwich experiment, perhaps as an insurance policy, and took his family back to Lebanon for another three years. “In 1982, the war broke out something fierce in our hometown. We were being bombed by planes and tanks,” Najwa said. (Zahleh, a city of 200,000, dominates the Bekka Valley, a fertile agricultural region producing both fruits and vegetables. It is about 45 minutes from Beirut, the coastal capital.)

“When the first bomb hit and the electricity went off, John looked at me and said we’re going to be without power for a long time,” Najwa said. “He told me to see what I would need and he’d take care of it for me.” (Propane gas for cooking was a top priority.)

The bombing continued for four months. John kept one of the three restaurants open, while Najwa and her daughters huddled together at home. At one point, Najwa called the American embassy in Beirut for help. “It was very, very scary. I told them we were being bombed. I wanted them to get me out. Mankato is my home, even though I was born in Lebanon. They said there was nothing they could do for us. They asked if we had enough food, which we did because we still had the restaurant open. They offered to have the Red Cross come check up on us.”

Residents of the second- and third-floor apartments often took shelter in the Massads’ ground-level apartment, with sometimes a dozen people squeezed into the relative safety of a tiny bathroom. “If a shell hit the house, it would have to go through three or four walls to hit that bathroom,” Najwa said.

Just as terrifying was watching John leave the apartment for work every day. “He’d jump out the kitchen door and run in between things to dodge the snipers,” Najwa said. For that, she called him “an idiot! I was scared out of my wits, for my kids, myself and more for John, who was out running around.”

Sandbag barricades around the restaurant protected customers from sniper fire. A generator kept the lights on and propane fueled the stoves. Most days, there weren’t many customers. She said John kept it open mostly to preserve jobs for his employees and to serve Christian activists. “John always knew what was going on because they held their secret meetings in the restaurant,” she said. “He sat in on these meetings.”

But other customers came too. “We’d have days with no snipers, no bombing. People are phenomenal over there. When the bombing stopped, women would go out and get their hair done,” she said. “There were no refrigerators because there was no power. People would buy 100 pounds of cracked wheat or lentils. You had to make do with what you had. I have such high respect for those people.”

Fruits and vegetables were scarce because farmers in the surrounding Bekkah Valley couldn’t get their produce into Zahleh. “If someone had a cucumber, they’d cut it thin and share it. If you had a pack of cigarettes, you’d split it. People became real neighbors. They grew closer together, like when 911 happened over here,” she said.

Then the intense fighting subsided. “There was a truce or something. Life went back to half-normal. So we forgot about the bad times. I took care of my kids, went shopping and it seemed like normal.”

Despite the truce, Najwa said John decided “he’d had enough.” The family headed for the American embassy in Beirut, hoping to arrange transportation. “They said there was a boat leaving the next morning for Cyprus. We said OK, and the embassy put our names on the list. We went home and packed.” They left their apartment at 2 A.M., needing extra time to pass through checkpoints between Zahleh and Beirut. “Then we rode a tugboat out to a freighter in the harbor. It was a freighter that ordinarily carried livestock and it was full of people of all nationalities,” Najwa said.

The voyage from Beirut to the island of Cyprus, usually a six-hour trip, took more than 24. An Israeli vessel stopped the freighter to check the passenger manifest. “It was choppy. People were getting sick. John wouldn’t let me give the kids any food or water because there was only one bathroom for the 250 people on the boat.”

When the Massads reached Cyprus, they saw an American flag flying from a table on the dock, where U.S. consulate officials were waiting to meet any U.S. citizens on the freighter. The Massads lugged their suitcase down the ramp and up to the table. “They took care of us. They told us where we could stay. You felt you were being taken care of.”

After 24 hours on Cyprus, they flew to London, then Chicago, then to Mankato, this time for good. “We had in mind that we wanted to open a restaurant, but it took us two years to find a place that we wanted,” Najwa said. They chose a small piece of bare land in downtown Mankato, where their Realtor and accountant assumed they’d build a deli featuring John’s Americanized schwarma.

But John wanted a full-scale restaurant. “They thought he was crazy. There wasn’t enough room. They said it couldn’t be done,” Najwa said. Even architects for the property’s owner thought the lot was too small, she said. “But John sat down and designed it and made it work. They never thought of building it as a two-story.” Meray’s opened in 1984, a 2,500 square-foot building, with seating for 130 and an upstairs apartment for the Massads.

Meray’s served breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu that blended French, Mediterranean and American entrees. “The way we cooked wasn’t American. A lot of it was sauteed like the French or Lebanese do it. Our food is delicious, but John’s biggest worry was how to make it Americanized enough for the tastes of southern Minnesotans,” Najwa said.

The restaurant quickly became one of Mankato’s favorites. “At lunchtime, we were always packed because of the schwarma. People opened the door and smelled this fabulous, wonderful thing. But it’s not just the taste and the smell, it’s the show, it’s the presentation,” she said. “Right by the front door was the schwarma machine with John carving and shaving the beef.” (The “machine” is a vertical rotisserie packed with meat, which is sliced and shaved as it rotates.) “Customers could watch him make the schwarmas.”

John began experimenting with the sandwich again, discovering that Meray’s customers preferred chicken rather than beef, so today’s schwarmas are exclusively chicken. The meat is marinated in a sauce originating in Lebanon. (Don’t ask for the recipe.)

At Meray’s, the schwarma was available only at lunch. “We had a fantastic menu, fantastic specials, but people still wanted the schwarmas. That was 90 percent of our lunch business.”

The Massads were highly visible at Meray’s, with John brandishing a knife by the schwarma machine and Najwa smiling as hostess. Even their youngsters, Meray and Karla, became well-known. “Our kids grew up in the restaurant. They’d bring their homework downstairs. They got to know the customers. They saw how we reacted to customers,” Najwa said. “If I saw a customer with a funny look on their face, I went right over to see if something was wrong, or if something didn’t taste right.”

That kind of attentive customer service is essential in the food business, according to Najwa. “We had a regular customer who always had a Manhattan before dinner. When I saw them parking their car, I had the Manhattan made and put on a table, ready for her. Your employees watch and learn from you. We taught our staff to acknowledge the arrival of customers, to let them know they’d be helped soon. My pet peeve is having a customer sit there, wondering if the waiter or waitress know they’re there.” (In the catering business, she entrusts Cheryl Schlicht, one of her office employees, with enforcing her high standards of service by the wait staff.)

Although the Massads could control food quality and customer service, they could do little about the restaurant’s biggest problem — a scarcity of parking. “Parking was always an issue. At night you could park in the bank lot. At lunchtime, you had to park in the ramp. But people still came. The biggest test for Meray’s was during construction of the civic center (in 1994).” Hickory Street, the main access to Meray’s, was closed during the project. “We put two youngsters out on Second Street with signs, saying ‘Meray’s is Open.’ They’d wave at people. A lot of customers came in and said they’d come just to support us.”

That kind of success breeds more success. The Massads were approached by a River Hills Mall representative, encouraging them to open a restaurant in the food court. They were approached by civic center representatives about becoming the facility’s exclusive caterer.

John favored taking on the civic center catering. “I thought he was crazy because, to me, doing Meray’s was already enough. I didn’t grow up in this business, but he said when you’re cooking for one, you can cook for 100.”

So, when the civic center opened in February of 1995, the Massads became the exclusive caterers. Eight months later, in October of 1995, John opened Massad’s in the River Hills Mall. He hopes to eventually franchise it and is developing a mechanical knife that will carve and shave chicken the way he does it by hand.

For almost two years, the Massads juggled all three businesses. John’s brother, Chuck, came from Lebanon to manage the food court outlet. “But it got to the point where it was too much,” Najwa said. Because the two new businesses were draining their attention, “Meray’s was suffering.” A new business is like a small child, she said. “You pay attention to it and you leave the older child to fend for itself.”

Meanwhile, the civic center itself had a negative impact on Meray’s. “Parking got worse. When we had a concert or MSU hockey, people couldn’t get into the ramp. We thought the civic center would help Meray’s, but it hurt on busy nights and weekends.”

Najwa credits the late Gus Johnson, an attorney, customer and friend, with convincing them that “we couldn’t do it all without something suffering.” Once convinced, John moved swiftly, closing Meray’s two days after the conversation with Johnson. The closing, on Oct. 25, 1997, radically reduced the demands on their time. John took over Massad’s because his brother was homesick for Lebanon, while Najwa focused on catering with initial guidance from John. The catering venture began with Najwa and one part-time office employee. Now there are four office employees and three in the kitchen, including Najwa, plus a wait staff of about 20.

Midwest Wireless Civic Center provides a well-equipped kitchen, offers plenty of rooms of various sizes for serving, and stocks all the plates and tableware Najwa needs. Whether a meal is to be served at the civic center or an off-site event, Najwa and her assistant, Angie Larsen, cook with the same creativity that attracted crowds to Meray’s. She describes Larsen as “my right, middle and left hands.” They delight in serving heart-healthy dishes. Consider the pains taken with ordinary meatballs: “First we bake them, then let them cool. Then we put them in a pan that has holes in the bottom and put them in a steamer,” she said. As steam heats the cooked meatballs, a drip pan catches the melting fat. What’s left are meatballs that are “lean and moist. They swim in a sea of sauce, not of grease,” she said. “I learned my cooking from my mother and from John. I like to cook. I love to eat.”

Many meats are cooked on “a flat grill, so it’s almost like sauteing.” As a final touch, the meat often is moved to a gas grill where is gets “the wonderful flavor of charbroiling,” Najwa said.

Appearance is just as important as taste to Najwa. “You eat with your eyes. If something looks wonderful, then more than likely, it’s going to taste wonderful. But if you throw it on a plate yourself in a buffet line, it may not look so wonderful. It’s all about art. It’s about presentation, the extra touch, the extra sprig of parsley,” she said.

About half of Midwest Wireless Civic Center events are buffets and half are sit-down meals served by a wait staff. “I prefer the served meals because we have better control of the food temperature and presentation. Timing is very critical with food.”

One of a caterer’s biggest problems is keeping food at the proper serving temperature, according to Najwa. For a buffet, “we have staff periodically stir the food because the surface cools down. The stirring keeps the food warmer.”

She and Barb Sanders, her part-time office manager, “work one-on-one with customers, see what their needs are. Every bride is different. The main thing is to listen to them. We treat every wedding as if it were our own daughter’s. We start from scratch with them, go over the menu, answer questions about cakes. It’s a one-stop shop. We guide them with everything.”

Najwa says she’s straightforward when it comes to pricing events. “Being at the Civic Center, we don’t have a minimum of how much they have to spend. We don’t nickel and dime them. Everything is spelled out in the beginning, so there are no surprises,” she said.

She says the catering business is “more relaxed than running Meray’s. We have some days off. It’s manageable. I don’t have to be there 24 hours a day. But I absolutely love what I do. If you get up in the morning and you’re not excited (about going to work), then it’s not worth it.”

Running the catering business is immensely satisfying, but she’s not sure why. “I don’t know whether it’s the challenge of trying to run it by myself because I never did that before, or because I am running it and it is successful. Before, it was always John (in charge) at Meray’s or at Massad’s. Now it’s me in charge!”

The Massads’ two daughters, Meray and Karla, aren’t in the food business, at least not yet. “I swore I’d never let them be in this business because it takes too many hours. I wanted them to have something besides the restaurant, if they needed something to fall back on.”

Meray is an interior designer for Paulsen Architects in Mankato. Karla is an accountant in Minneapolis. “They told me recently that they’re thinking about opening a little restaurant somewhere. It’s in their blood. It’s in mine too,” Najwa said.

© 2002 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Roger Matz

A freelance writer from Mankato. [Editor: Roger Matz passed away in December, 2003.]