Durham, N.C. — A quarter-century building a restaurant business takes more than hard work and good luck. Just ask the Ghanems. In 1988, Robert, a native of Labanon, launched Saladelia Cafe on University Drive. But the business really took off when he met his wife, Fida, who’s also from Lebanon, a few years later and coaxed her into joining the business. That’s when, Robert says, “things whent on high speed.”
Theirs is a story of love and hard work, of family and deep roots, of world travel and making a home in a new land. It can be presented in three short acts:
Though Robert and Fida both hail from the Mideast, they didn’t know each other there.
Robert came to the U.S. in the 1980s to attend college at N.C. State; a few years later, Fida came over to attend Georgia State University. They met on vacation in Cyprus in 1990 and exchanged phone numbers. Then he returned to Durham to run his restaurant, and she went back to her sales job with Panasonic in Atlanta.
He lost her number and, as Fida now points out, “Lebanese girls don’t call.”
A year passed, and Robert was in Beirut at an office building. He overheard Fida’s last name and made an inquiry. It turned out her sister worked there, and he got Fida’s number from her.
A whirlwind courtship culminated when he surprised her with a proposal on an airplane, where she was about to embark on a trip to Paris. They changed their itinerary to head home to Lebanon, to get their parents’ blessing. For Robert and Fida, family has always been paramount.
After their 1992 wedding at Treyburn, Fida needed a little convincing to join Robert in the restaurant business. That came in the form of her own Saladelia in Chapel Hill, located near the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets where Kurama is now. It opened in 1994 but didn’t quite work out, and the Ghanems sold the storefront and refocused their efforts in Durham in 1996. By then the Saladelia at University Drive was thriving, and Robert and Fida worked hard both to keep that trend going and to expand the catering business.
Their success up to this point was remarkable in itself. When Robert opened in 1988, most of Durham wasn’t familiar with Mediterranean cuisine. When a customer saw the word “hummus,” he asked, “Isn’t that potting soil?”
Robert built the business with food that could be described with the same buzz- words that are now ubiquitous on menus all over town.
“Fresh, from-scratch, organic, sustainable, local,” Robert says. “The food we have here has a lot of appeal nowadays.” “We don’t serve anything we wouldn’t serve our family,” Fida adds.
Speaking of which, the Ghanems have deftly juggled the demands of family and business ownership. Daughter Nora came along in 1996, then son Tad followed in 1998. “I’m so proud of how hard working they are and how much e ort they put into their business but also how dedicated they’ve been to raising me,” Nora, now 17, says as we sit at the University Drive Saladelia. “ ey’ve been so involved in my life and my schooling.”
It wasn’t always easy. “Something has to give,” Fida says. “You sleep less, you run more and somehow, by the grace of God, you manage. Some events I’m there, and some events he’s there and some we say, ‘OK, we both need to be there.’ We kind of try to divide and conquer.”
Unsurprisingly, family dinners a few times a week are “how we try to keep together.”
Fida’s business background came in handy as the couple expanded their reach throughout Durham and, importantly, on the Duke campus. The University Drive location became a popular spot for Duke denizens, including the Krzyzewski family. But Saladelia's first permanent spot on campus came in rather humble form.
Students asked Aramark, the mega-company that ran Duke dining, if it would put Saladelia’s tabouli and hummus on the salad bar. A deal was struck, and Saladelia products made it on campus, albeit unbilled.
But that led, in 2006, to Saladelia getting a contract to set up shop at the Perkins Library on campus. “Robert and I came away from that really celebrating, feeling like we’ve proven our name in the community when Duke Dining comes and knocks on your door,” Fida says.
Then, after customers clamored for a downtown location, Saladelia opened up in American Tobacco. Then they acquired Mad Hatter’s Cafe & Bakeshop in 2008, a stone’s throw from Duke’s campus. All their baking needs were met there as well, a huge plus.
Then came another Saladelia in Hock Plaza in 2009, and the Ghanems now have yet another location at the Sanford Library at Duke. And that’s not the last strong tie the Ghanems have with Duke. Nora, having graduated from Durham Academy, is a true Blue Devil.
All the while, the Ghanems haven’t gotten away from the consistently fresh and tasty food that made them what they are. Tad, a student at Durham Academy, helped manage the garden they operate on Shannon Road that supplies their formidable restaurant empire.
And to think it all started with a few simple twists of fate.
The Ghanems, who’ve expanded the original Saladelia store twice and now employ 80 people, like giving back to the city that has given them so much. They support the Duke Cancer Center, Urban Ministries, Crop Walk and the Durham Rescue Mission.
Often when they get stopped in the grocery store, they’re known as Mr. Saladelia or Mrs. Saladelia. People think it’s their last name, though it’s simply a combination of “salad” and “deli” with the “a” added, Robert says, “for air.”
But do they mind? Not one bit. “I’ll take it,” Fida says with a laugh.