Q&A: Samantha Severo, marketing manager at Aladdin’s Eatery, Lakewood, Ohio

1502spot8Aladdin’s Eatery has a casual atmosphere and warm color scheme, which creates an inviting ambiance.These days, it can be more difficult for a family-owned and operated restaurant to transform into a thriving chain. This is the story for Aladdin’s Eatery, now one of the top Mediterranean chains in the country.

The 31-site chain was created in 1994 by Fady Chamoun and his wife Sally, who continue to run the operation as they have for two decades.

In 2013, the restaurant posted more than $34 million in sales, a 7 percent increase from the year prior, according to a report from Chicago-based market research firm Technomic. “In the next 6 months, we will be up to 34 sites,” says Samantha Severo, marketing manager. “We also have two similar concepts, Taza Lebanese Grill and Sittoo’s Pita and Salads, which have two locations each in the Cleveland area.”

FE&S: Aladdin’s Eatery has thrived in a market that has increasingly become more competitive. Describe your concept.
SS: Our concept centers around Lebanese-American food, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options that are fresh and preservative-free. Our restaurants, which average between 2,500 and 2,700 square feet with 60 to 80 seats, have consistent decor and designs. It’s a casual atmosphere and is described by our tagline as “simple yet sophisticated.” There are wooden booths and tables, with centerpieces created by a local artist. The warm color scheme creates an inviting ambiance. Lamps hang from the ceiling, and paintings from local artists adorn the walls.

1502spot7A vertical cutter mixer is instrumental in creating Aladdin’s Eatery’s from-scratch hummus.FE&S: Your menu has remained consistent for two decades, but changes are underway. What will this entail?
SS: Our offerings are centered around the Mediterranean diet; fresh is key. Hummus is one of our best sellers, among other traditional favorites, including baba gannouj and tabouli. Also, we offer rolled pita sandwiches, which are popular. Something unique to Aladdin’s Eatery is our “pitza,” which are pizzas made on pita bread. This includes a variety of ingredients, such as tahini dressing and cheese. This January, all of our restaurants will incorporate new dishes that we’ve been testing at our sites over the last year. Kale quinoa tabouli; red quinoa Lebanese salata with red quinoa, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, scallions and onions; and mujadara power salad with mixed greens and mujadara topped with hummus and toasted onions will be added. We also will be introducing kale, quinoa and brown rice as add-in options to our salads, pitas and rolls. We’ve already had great feedback from our customers.

FE&S: How does the equipment at Aladdin’s Eatery support its menu?
SS: Our locations have open kitchens, and the equipment lineup is pretty standard. We have a Cleveland bakery make our pita bread and other items, but the majority of our dishes are made fresh on site each day. This includes our hummus, which is produced with a vertical cutter mixer. Our main cookline includes charbroilers with 36-inch wide grates, a 36-inch wide flattop chargrill and a 36-inch wide 6-burner range. We utilize a mini multi-purpose conveyor oven to cook our pitzas. Although we have a walk-in cooler, we only use a small, one-door freezer, since most of our food is fresh.

FE&S: Have you made any equipment changes recently?
SS: We use a blender to make our fresh fruit smoothies, but we’ve recently incorporated a quieter model with soundproof features. This has been a big benefit, since this area is located in the front of house by the phones. We’ve also always used a huge juice extractor to make our fresh juices. Throughout the years, we’ve tried to find equipment with updated technology, but we’ve stuck with the same model due to its consistent results and durability. Durability is the most important aspect we look for with our equipment, in addition to efficiency and flexibility to serve multiple purposes. Energy efficiency also is a plus.

FE&S: What current Mediterranean trends is Aladdin’s Eatery addressing?
SS: We’re incorporating our ethnic dips into more of our dishes, due to customer demand. Also, more of our customer base is looking for gluten-free and vegetarian-friendly items. The majority of our demographic is seeking a healthy meal. For those more hesitant to experiment or unfamiliar with authentic Mediterranean, we offer more familiar items, like chicken salad.

1502spot9A 36-inch-wide chargrill is one of the main pieces of cooking equipment in the Aladdin’s Eatery lineup.FE&S: With the increasing popularity of Mediterranean food comes more challenges. What are the biggest issues in operating restaurants in this segment?
SS: Our customer base is very loyal, but we are still always trying to expand our reach. It can sometimes be difficult introducing items to those who are unfamiliar with Mediterranean food.

FE&S: The chain has grown exponentially in the last two decades. What are your plans moving forward?
SS: We’re always growing. Last year, we opened up our first Florida site in Boca Raton. We’re now in six states and looking forward to expanding into more in the years ahead.

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