Bringing the best of the Middle East to the Midwest

Habib Mandwee leans his chin into the palm of his hand and lets his mind wander to a dream. He remembers being a boy in Baghdad, Iraq, and spending long, lazy days watching the family cow graze. Perhaps, he muses, someday he might have a small farm. A cow or two grazing in the pasture, sheep, even goats...

Mandwee perks up from his daydream, sips a bit of Massan, a Lebanese red wine, and dips a crisp point of pita into fragrant olive oil before rolling it in a complex mix of Arabic spices. His watchful eye falls not on grazing livestock, but on the open space of Zooroona, a Middle Eastern restaurant and lounge at the opposite corner of an L-shaped strip mall dominated by Tiffany's Wine & Spirit Shoppe, 1714 W. Main Street. Habib Mandwee -- along with brothers Saad, Rafat and Talaat, the latter two being silent partners in Sterling Heights -- owns both.

The brothers also own Rustica, a downtown Kalamazoo restaurant at 236 S. Kalamazoo Mall that specializes in European cuisine, showcases wines from Tiffany's, and opened within a scant two weeks of Zooroona.

"What's the worst that can happen?" Mandwee laughs deliciously. "Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and sign (the contract). Just don't give me any new ideas!"

Immediately, Mandwee swings into a list of new ideas. A layout of a new menu is on the dining room table. New dishes he would like to try. The dishes have been specials offered at Zooroona's, and customers have expressed enjoyment in them. Mandwee listens to his customers.

Then there is the idea of another restaurant. He envisions a place where nothing matches, not one chair, not one dish, not one cup. Only the quality of the food would match the likes and dislikes of his customers

"Not customers," Mandwee says. "When you come into Zooroona's, when you come into Tiffany's, or Rustica's, you are my guest. You are a guest in my home."

This is the secret of  the Mandwee brothers' success. They treat every customer like a warmly awaited guest.

Habib Mandwee tells with relish a story of a customer who just a day ago waved at him as he sat in his car outside of Tiffany's, ready to go home. The customer had recognized him, and was most anxious to purchase a favorite bottle of wine. Would Mandwee please re-open the store to sell it to him? Mandwee did. He re-opened the store, sold his guest the $5 bottle of wine, and only then went home.

"You run a business with heart," he says. "You follow that gut feeling. Whatever a guest wants, you deliver."

Habib Mandwee came to Kalamazoo as a college student at Western Michigan University in the 1970s, and he thought he would return to Iraq once his education was complete. His brother Saad came, too, first to Chicago, then joined him in Kalamazoo. They are two of 12 siblings.

Their family in Iraq belong to a small religious group of Sabaean Mandeans (about 60,000 members worldwide) that venerates John the Baptist and always lives near a river, for "water is the essence of life." Mandeans tend to be well-educated professionals -- engineers, doctors, gold and silversmiths. In the Mandwee family, nearly everyone was a jeweler. Business came naturally.

But Habib and Saad did not return to Iraq. In 1980, their homeland was torn by war, the Mandeans persecuted even by their own countrymen. They stayed in the United States, talking about what kind of business they might start. A laundromat? A gas station? A small wine store called Tiffany's caught their eye.

The Mandwee brothers bought the 1,000-square-foot store in 1982. Today, it's a 6,000-square-foot specialty store with 10,000 wines in stock, about 1,000 beers, numerous varieties of liquors and a walk-in humidor of cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

The store sells gourmet foods, 60 types of gourmet chocolate, fine cheeses imported from Holland, Spain, France, England, Italy and Greece. The deli serves hot sandwiches, salads, cheeses, and, of course, many Middle Eastern foods. Metal drums are filled with olive oil from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, poured out fresh into bottles for customers … er, guests.

"Tiffany's is the backbone of our business," Mandwee says. The brothers run all their businesses under the name of Sabhin, LLC, in honor of their mother, Sabhin. When Mandwee's father passed away, their mother raised all 12 children on her own -- the eldest then age 15, the youngest 4 months. The Middle Eastern culture, Mandwee says, is centered on family. The entire family today lives in the United States.

Mandwee often travels to the Middle East, but rarely to Iraq. Kalamazoo, he says, is home. Even so, he acknowledges, spending the first 18 years of his life in the Middle East was formative, and he hopes now that he and his brothers can bring something of their ethnic background to share with the community of greater Kalamazoo.

"Food is a good way to share a culture," Mandwee says, and offers another dish. Dip your pita in hommous, a puree of garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic and lemon juice. Enjoy baba ghannouj, grilled eggplant diced with red and green peppers, tomato and spring onion tossed in a light pomegranate molasses dressing. Order a house tray to sample falafel, kibbeh mikliyah, chicken kafta kabob, beef and lamb shawermah, and other Middle Eastern foods. While you eat, the music starts, and a belly dancer swirls between the tables and in front of the curtain-enclosed booths where guests are seated on pillows.

For a moment, guests can easily imagine they are somewhere else, far away. Only when Mais approaches the table, a waitress at Zooroona's and also Mandwee's niece -- it is a family business -- and dangles a set of keys in the air does Kalamazoo pop through the illusion of an Arabian night.

Mandwee instantly switches back to business. Who will lock up on this snowy night, who will take the new menus to the chef? He's on it. The cows grazing in a Baghdad pasture vanish in midair.

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Portage and editor of literary ezine, The Smoking Poet.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Habib Mandwee owns and operates the Zooroona, Middle Eastern Cuisine and Lounge at 1710 West Main Street.

The Mandwee brothers also run Tiffany's Wine and Spirit Shop.

Ehsa Faleh is Head Chef at Zooroona.

Signup for Email Alerts