Can the Ave’s international food culture survive a rezone?

Samir Alawar stands in front of his restaurant on Saturday, March 4. Alawar has been cooking on the Ave for almost 40 years and opened Samir’s in 2005 after his brother died. (Photo by Grace Madigan.)

Immigrant-owned eateries — offering everything from pho to to pad thai to shwarma — have been a longtime staple on University Way, including the restaurants of Samir Alawar, who has been serving Mediterranean food on “the Ave” for 40 years.

Alawar, 60, had immigrated as a refugee when he joined his brother in Seattle to run Cedars of Lebanon in 1977. In 2005, after his brother’s death, Alawar opened a new place across the street, called Samir’s Mediterranean Grill.

Alawar’s restaurants have been a labor of love.

“If my landlord ask me someday to leave and didn’t want to renew my lease, I would go and open another restaurant even if it only had one table — until I die, ‘cause I like it,” he said.

The restaurants gave Alawar the opportunity to participate in the American dream. But now, rising rent, shifting demographics and a new change to allow high rises in the University District threaten to transform the neighborhood, making it more difficult for small businesses to remain open.

These changes to the Ave could close a window to immigrant entrepreneurs, like Alawar and his brother who established their own restaurants as a way to provide for their families.   

Today there is apprehension for the Ave’s future due to a new upzone, which will permit high rises and an influx of people into the U-District. While the upzone may bring more foot traffic and new clientele to the neighborhood, small businesses vulnerable to rising rents may not survive to see the benefit.

The change in zoning also increases property taxes. It’s common for landlords to pass the cost to business owners, who then cover the increases as part of their lease agreements. Small businesses like Samir’s bear the brunt, and future immigrants would might have been able to support their families with a restaurant or business of their own could be locked out.

In February, to address the lack of affordable housing that has driven up apartment rates and home prices, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to approve an upzone for the University District — despite concerns of rising rents for businesses.

Further adding to uncertainty, business has been slow, rents aren’t dropping and competition is fierce. Alawar estimates that Samir’s is down by 60 percent. John Khalil, who now runs Cedars of Lebanon across the street, is experiencing the same thing.

While there is no exact number for how many restaurants on the Ave are immigrant owned, “ethnic” food accounts for nearly 70 percent of all food eateries (includes bars and cafes) on the Ave and 85 percent of all restaurants.

The U-District Partnership estimates of the half a billion dollars spent in the U-District in 2015, 15 percent was spent on food services. Applying the figure of 70 percent of ethnic restaurants to the greater U-District, that would mean ethnic restaurants could account for 11 percent of all money spent or $52.5 million.  

Demographics of restaurants on the Ave. (Graphic by Grace Madigan.)

A history of immigrant entrepreneurs

Taso Lagos is the son of George and Helen Lagos, who for 40 years owned The Continental, a popular Greek restaurant on the Ave. Lagos, also a lecturer at the University of Washington in the Hellenic/European Studies program, said the pattern of immigrants opening restaurants is historic — the South Eastern European immigrants of the 1880s found that one of the few ways they could participate in an American culture that was suspicious of them was through their food.

Many Anglo Americans also avoided restaurant jobs, seeing them as lower class and lower paying, leaving the door open for immigrants.

Additionally, historically it hasn’t taken a lot of capital to open up a restaurant, Lagos said. Their low prices and filling foods provided a model for future immigrants.

The history of the Ave as a shopping district also opened the door to immigrant restaurateurs, Lagos said. In the early 1900s, the U-District was a hub for shopping with a Nordstrom, JC Penney and furniture stores. But the big stores left in the 1950s when malls were developed. Over the next couple decades, the Ave saw a cultural change with the cheap store fronts with small businesses catering to hippies and counterculture and ethnic, immigrant-owned restaurants proving successful and opening the door for more restaurants to follow suit.

Samir Alawar sits at one of the eight “two-tops” in his small restaurant on Thursday, February 23. Behind him are pictures of the many dishes his restaurant offers, these are some of his personal favorites. (Photo by Grace Madigan)

Long before moving to Seattle, Samir Alawar loved working in restaurants.

Alawar remembers 15-hour shifts as a dishwasher in Lebanon when he was 10, earning 30 cents an hour. But he loved it, every single minute of it.

But civil war in his country broke out in 1975 and forced hundreds of thousands of people like Alawar to seek refuge. He was 21 when he left Lebanon for Seattle. His brother had immigrated nine years earlier and opened Cedars of Lebanon off the Ave.

Today, Alawar says he runs his business more for himself than anything else, as he just breaks even after all is done and tallied. For Alawar this job has given him everything and he loves it.

“I make my living here and my kids living and my wife’s living and my future,” Alawar said. “I never ever turn my back on this country. Even if this country is in a war, I will go and cook for the soldiers…I would do anything to pay this country back.”

Directly across the street is Cedars of Lebanon, the restaurant Alawar and his brother ran together before he died. (Photo by Grace Madigan.)