WHEN WASSEF AND Racha Haroun opened their Capitol Hill restaurant Mamnoon in 2012, it was with the intention of celebrating a contemporary version of the Levantine cuisine and culture they grew up with in Syria and Lebanon.
“We’re not a purely Americanized version, and we’re not being romantic and nostalgic. We wanted to be contemporary while being able to trace [flavors] back to authentic roots,” Wassef says.
Shortly after opening Mamnoon, they created a takeout window at the restaurant in order to lure in curious passersby for a quick lunch on-the-go using the smells of sizzling lamb with Aleppo pepper and chicken shawarma. In 2016, their dramatic South Lake Union rooftop bar and restaurant, mbar; casual cafe Mamnoon Street; and juice bar Anar (the latter two are located in the Amazon Doppler building next to the Spheres) all opened.
The Harouns always had wanted to find a way to spread love through food even further — packaging for retail the popular mezze dips like hummus, baba ganoush and muhammara — but time restraints got in the way.
“Operating a restaurant is difficult. Operating more is even more difficult. You get ruled by the service schedule and the fact you’re open at certain times. Anything over and beyond that has to fit into the slower times for the staff that is already there, or staff up for it separately,” Wassef says.
He didn’t have the time or the focus of the team to teach new skills, and he found he couldn’t plan ahead much beyond a week. He also didn’t have the ability to hire a new team to solely focus on building up a retail line.
Then, in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the restaurant world in Seattle changed overnight. The service schedule was thrown out the window. There was no need to have waitstaff when dining rooms were empty, but when the business was awarded a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, he was able to keep staff by shifting their roles.
They began focusing on meal kits and takeout, but there also finally was time to focus on what is now called Mamnoon Fine Foods, a line that includes spices, dressings, sauces, dips and pita chips. So the Harouns went about making a big transition.
The executive team — chef, director of operations, event manager — had their roles transformed, going from running a restaurant to looking at packaging requirements, speaking with the FDA about food safety for retail, figuring out production strategies, building relationships with retailers and more.
“I can’t say it was easy. Everybody went through a steep learning curve to be where we are right now,” Wassef says.
The recipes were there — it was mostly a matter of scaling up, procuring packaging and then finding area markets that would take a chance on a new line of products.
That includes a fattoush salad dressing and mint-flecked labne, plus a Fresno chili-spiked harra sauce and crunchy pita chips.
Haroun hopes people consider the line an extension of the Mamnoon experience at the restaurant: Grab a bottle of the fattoush dressing, and add a bag of the pita chips, greens and radish or cucumber. Order a dinner kit from the restaurant, and supplement with the dips, or marinate some beef, lamb or chicken at home to go along with them.
“There’s a lot of room for us to do things that make life at home during the pandemic better that has a very strong Mamnoon flavor to it,” he says.
By November, the products were in Ken’s Market in Greenwood and Queen Anne, the Leschi Market, DeLaurenti and Cone & Steiner in Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square. In December, they had a trial at Metropolitan Market, testing in two stores, and by early January had a commitment for 10.
“For us, the numbers are staggering. We’re in the hundreds of units per week, 12 units per case and tens of cases each week,” Wassef says.
They’ve started to get a following of people who love the products. But the next step, he says, is “frightening.” Dining rooms are reopening. With production growing, Wassef is faced with some decisions.
“It’s a great supplemental part [of our business], but it’s not sufficient to be alone. We have no choice but to grow it a little bit, so we’re thinking hard about how we can do this while also bringing Mamnoon back online and keeping the sanity of our teams,” he says.
Options include finding a commercial kitchen or commissary, or even working with a co-packer, but he wants to stay away from thinking of the food as a commodity.
“It’s important we keep the control, that connection and the love,” he says.
Ideally, they’ll find a hybrid space, one that could be a commissary but also have a retail-facing front to welcome customers, similar to an all-day cafe. For now, he’s happy to grow organically and continue to share the flavors of Mamnoon.
“I have to say that, in some ways, it’s the good thing that emerged out of this craziness,” he says.