Achieving the American dream can mean different things to different people: owning a house, climbing the career ladder — or making falafel an American household name.
Kareem Hawari and his family, owners of Kareem's Restaurant in Anaheim, hope to see their name in your freezer.
"What I have in my head is falafel, falafel, falafel … and how to make it, how to anything, you know," he says.
The restaurant is homey — 10 tables, a small patio out front. The Palestinian-American family has been serving falafel — zesty green chickpea fried to a peppery brown crisp — for 20 years.
"My father and my mother came into the United States, and my father had a passion for cooking, and my mother had a passion for teaching," he says. "And apparently his overpowered hers."
Nesrine Omari, Kareem's mom, greets everyone with a big hug. As the restaurant’s chef — and a mom — she’ll ask if you’ve eaten.
"The best thing that people say: 'Oh, my gosh, I was here 10 years ago and it’s the same taste. Never, never change,'" she says. "This is a big thing, yeah. It has to be the same taste, because I am the cook. I am the one who makes it all the time."
But the family’s humble success came to a halt in 2012 when Kareem’s father, Mike Hawari, died of lung cancer.
"It was like, he was here, we started together, and it was not easy for me to come back," she says. She put the shop up for sale, and the place was shuttered for two months.
After years of cooking together with her husband, Nesrine couldn’t go back to the restaurant alone. But with her kids, she could. So they reopened and renewed a focus on their father’s falafel.
"In 2012, when he passed away, I realized that this is more than just an appetizer, or it’s more than just a recipe," Kareem says. "It’s something that was really important to him. And so I really wanted to push it out into the world."
They weren’t just serving falafel at their restaurant. They were selling the falafel mix to other restaurants.
If we could do this, Kareem thought, why not sell to supermarkets, too?
So he did.
A few Orange County supermarkets now sell Kareem’s falafel — Ansar Gallery in Tustin is one of them. Most are ethnic grocery stores. It's a small start, but he’s got plans to sell to big American chains like Whole Foods.
"It’s really cool, especially my friends that go shopping in supermarkets," says Kareem. "They’ll send me pictures, like, 'Oh, I see your falafel in the freezer.' And, I’m like, 'Woo!'"
Can they open a falafel factory? Be among the first American-made falafel factories? He knows it’s a steady game, but he’s got a playbook.
Kareem says you die twice. The first time is when you die physically. The second time is the last time your name is heard. Turning Kareem’s falafel into a household name is his way of keeping his father’s legacy alive.