Ali Baba’s owner/operator Elzabidi waxes poetic on restaurant’s path to becoming key player in Daniel Island lunch and dinner scene
By Charlie Morrison
There is a ‘buzz’ in the air these days at Daniel Island lunch, dinner, and catering favorite Ali Baba’s Mediterranean Deli & Catering, a ‘feeling’ experienced by customers and staff members alike.
It’s a good feeling, and one akin to that of being helpfully and knowledgably guided on adventure you know you’ll enjoy. Whether it be the restaurant’s refurbished digs, the upbeat attitude of the staff, or a reflection of the leadership of restaurant owner/operators Samir and Yasmeen Elzabidi themselves, something’s in the air at Ali Baba’s Mediterranean.
The business future of the restaurant has never been better. After all, Daniel Island is growing and with it, the restaurant’s potential customer base. New residents move to Daniel Island every day, construction projects endure and more are on their way, making Daniel Island a great place to run a service business in 2017.
In the eyes of restaurant owner and operator Samir Elzabidi however, the ‘buzz’ at Ali Baba’s emerged organically, a natural bi-product of hard work rewarded. And while the business future of the restaurant now in 2017 appears by all accounts to be bright and only getting brighter, it wasn’t always this way. Before the restaurant could ever grow their menu, renovate and expand, Elzabidi remembers a time when things weren’t so cheery at the restaurant he now calls “his baby.”
It was the time before Ali Baba’s tasted sustained success, before happy customers’ word-of-mouth recommendations began driving new customers to the restaurant, and long before the recent renovation and expansion of the restaurant’s physical space at 186 Seven Farms Drive was a mere twinkle in the Jordanian-born Elzabidi’ s still youthful eyes. It was a tough time for all businesses. It was back then, during the period following the 2008 financial downturn that became the toughest test for the Elzabidi family and Ali Baba’s as a viable business.
Back then, the restauranteur and wife Yasmeen were mainstays at Ali Baba’s, pouring their own time, effort, and energy into the task of building business, serving customers and acquiring new ones. It was tough, Elzabidi remembers. Customers were not only suffering from the economy, but they too were unfamiliar at first with Mediterranean food. The restaurant had to get Daniel Island over the idea Elzabidi’s menu was exotic and unfamiliar.
The future was very much in doubt back then, but in the end the business survived on the backs of those same customers.
“It was scary. The customers were not used to our food and we had to pronounce each name and explain it,” reflected the restaurateur in our recent interview. “When we first opened people used to walk in and say ‘tabbouleh, what the heck is tabbouleh?’”
“I love Daniel Island,” he continues. “A lot of people supported us here when we were first getting started, and again when we were going through that very hard time in 2010 and 2011 when everything collapsed.”
“We were very, very close to shutting down. A lot of people in the area lost their jobs and it was very tough economy,” he remembers. “But we had loyal customers, just enough to make it.”
The restaurant ‘made it’ on the back of the restaurant’s unique menu of traditional Mediterranean dishes, the chicken Shawarma, the gyros, the stuffed grape leaves, all created from recipes that had been passed on to the restauranteur from generation to generation.
On top of the food itself, the Elzabidis have built their restaurant’s niche too from how it is served, particularly through their use of a massive set of deli coolers that allow them to present what began as 18 and now is more than 40 salads on the menu visually to their customers.
From the Tabbouleh Salad, to Baba Ganoush, to the Elzabidi family’s own traditional, homemade, roasted red pepper hummus, the salad selections at Ali Baba are presented visually, where customers can see the texture, the color, and the ingredients in the many salads before they choose. The effect was to transform the salad selections from exotic to approachable for the Daniel Island customer unfamiliar with Mediterranean food.
“It helped us to have a delicatessen cooler where we can show off the food, so when you ask about it you can actually see it and see if you might like it,” Elzabidi comments. “When you look at the menu you might see Greek quinoa. You’re not sure, but when you see it in the window you like what you see and think you might give it a try, that’s what we’re going for.”
As to why Elzabidi, who moved to the United States from his native Jordan in 1990, was inspired to even get into the restaurant business in the first place, one need only look to his Mediterranean, middle eastern roots.
“Food is a big part of our culture, we eat all the time,” continues the affable Elzabidi. “Food is very important, we eat three times a day and have big family events on the weekend where we have 30 or 40 extended family members all eating together. It’s really important.”
“In Jordan cousins are like brothers or sisters, so we get together like “The Sopranos,” the mafia.”
It was his roots, his love of food and the act of eating with loved ones that Elzabidi first began cooking professionally. His career began in his native Jordan and with his family, who ran restaurants themselves but made the jump with Elzabidi when he took his biggest risk in moving to the U.S. over 25 years ago.
But in opening Ali Baba’s Elzabidi found the challenge and the opportunity he’d sought from his youth, the chance to introduce a brand-new community to the food he’d grown up on, the food he loved. And as such, when he opened Ali Baba’s, Elzabidi went big with the menu, making the choice to offer not only Mediterranean staples but too dishes from all across the region, giving his new customers a wide array of dishes to choose from that each, in their own way, introduces consumers to the tastes, spices and smells of food from north Africa to Europe, to the Middle East.
“Our concept was to promote healthy food with a lot of solid choices, we wanted to do Mediterranean so you can choose from the different region,” he continues. “We have Greek food, Turkish and Lebanese, and that is 80% of the menu. “But you can go to Italy, you can go to Spain, any item from these countries is Mediterranean.”
Ali Baba’s Mediterranean Deli & Catering is open from Monday to Saturday each week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information on or to check out their menu, visit them on the web at www.AliBabaCharleston.com, give them a call at (843) 377-8666, or simply drop by the restaurant’s Daniel Island home at 186 Seven Farms Dr., Ste. 500. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org as well.