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Taste of Lebanon offers traditional food, welcoming atmosphere

Date: 12/23/2014

WEST SPRINGFIELD – When Maher and Nisrine Awkal opened Taste of Lebanon this August, neither one had much experience in the restaurant business.

Maher has worked in pizza shops, helping out here and there, and a sweet shop back in Lebanon when he was growing up. Nisrine played host to friends and families, cooking up large meals for their guests, all of who praised her homemade, traditional Lebanese recipes.

That was all, but instead of sinking in the pressure that comes along with the restaurant business, the couple has found a passion that allows them to create their own environment, one that lets them have family time while working and builds a sense of community in West Springfield.

“Money is not going to make me happy,” Nisrine said. “What’s going to make me happy is that community feeling that I want for my kids and me and everybody here, the old-fashioned way, feeling like you belong to something. I feel like people are starting to feel like they belong here.”
While Nisrine has worked as an interpreter and a social worker, Maher worked as a mechanical engineer for 18 years. But then one day, he woke up, went to his morning meeting, came back to his office and began working on his resignation letter.

“I used to tell everybody, all of my bosses, you know, the minute I stop loving what I do is the minute that I will quit. So he looked at me and he said, ‘You stopped loving it.’”

Working seven days a week in a high stress field, Maher finally had enough of “the corporate world and the rat race.” That is when what had been a long-running joke among friends and family became the family’s new venture: “You two should open a restaurant.”

So they did.

“For me at first, I said, ‘That’s not happening,’ but friends and family were excited and they were happy,” Nisrine said. “We didn’t tell them for the longest time. It was a month before we opened. We kept it as a secret because we didn’t know if we really wanted to do it or not.”

Though Nisrine had been used to her family and friends raving about her food, once Taste of Lebanon opened its doors, she found the reaction has been the same from the community, as well. 

“Obviously, it’s different. Cooking to 100 isn’t cooking for the whole community,” she said with a laugh.

Though Maher said they have not spent any money on advertising, “not even one email,” people are still finding the restaurant. When they do, they rave about it. Maher opened up a Yelp account, and it did not take long for the positive feedback to come rolling in.

“That’s what kept me moving. I think that’s what kept me going because when we first opened I wasn’t that sure,” Nisrine said. “I know people always used to say that I make good food but, you know, it’s only friends and family, but when you open to the public and they give you good feedback that makes you happy.”

Nisrine said that although when she and Maher first got married, she struggled with cooking; it was her mother’s cookbook that helped her turn something that was difficult into a passion. Two weeks after the couple was married, she cooked her first large meal for friends and family.

She has not looked back since.

Though Nisrine said she still calls her mother for cooking advice and recipes, she has taken some variations into her own hands, experimenting with old recipes and finding something new. With everything homemade and all-natural, Nisrine said it is fun to keep everybody on their toes when it comes to her cooking.

The restaurant’s menu includes traditional Lebanese foods, such as falafels, kebabs, manaeesh and kebbe, all made from scratch.

Even the most basic of foods get high praise. Nisrine said that customers come in looking for a quick burger, but people say that they have never had anything like it. When asked what was unique about her burgers, Nisrine shrugged. It was just how she has always made them.

But Nisrine and Maher have always done things their own way without thinking twice about it, and they will continue to do so. This means that when people come into their restaurant for their food, they will go beyond simply handing out a dish and getting back to work.

“I want people to enjoy it. Most of my customers, I sit down and chat and eat with. I hope this stays this way,” Maher said. “People feel welcome when they come in here and that’s what we want.”

This is something that both have said they wanted from the start.

“When we first opened I hoped that everybody would be welcome here … I wanted this to be old fashioned and people feel like this is their store, not ours. That’s what makes me feel really good,” Nisrine said. “When people tell me that they feel that, or if they have any problems they’ll come discuss it and chat and they leave happy. I feel great. We have a great community and we need someone to always be there for each other. When we first opened, I was really praying that it would be that kind of place where people not only come for food but for advice, a shoulder to cry on, for happiness, for all their matters.”

Customers that come through Taste of Lebanon are sure to get more than just a quick bite to eat, Maher and Nisrine said. It is a family business, and they want that to reflect to their patrons above everything else.

But then again, for both Maher and Nisrine, when work is no longer a chore, it makes creating that atmosphere a bit easier.

“Right now I wouldn’t trade anything for spending time with my wife and my kids. It was a lot of stress, but right now I’m doing exactly what I want to do, just being her and seeing her beautiful face everyday,” Maher said. “A lot of people chase money, chase money, chase money. I chase what I love and I do what I love and when you chase what you love, it’s awesome. It’s nothing less than awesome when you do what you love.”

Taste of Lebanon is located at 553 Main Street in West Springfield. For more information, call 363-0414.