The husband and wife team of Hani and Mae Elassal have served their reasonably priced take on Middle Eastern food from their restaurant Falafel Cafe on Euclid Avenue for 18 years.
Ms. Elassal makes her food, from falafels to spinach and mushroom pies, by hand. The two share duties in the kitchen, cooking the food and serving customers themselves.
“We work as a team,” said Ms. Elassal. “That’s why we’ve worked for 18 years.”
Now, University Circle Incorporated (UCI) is forcing the duo to move elsewhere. The Elassals were told in March that their lease would not be renewed, and they had six months to close. The non-profit said they wanted to give another business the chance to use the space but did not provide any other reasons for evicting the couple.
“We asked them if they needed extra money or if they wanted to raise the rent, and they said no,” Ms. Elassal said.
Falafel Cafe’s move marks the latest loss to the University Circle restaurant scene. Ninja City, Dynomite Burgers, Crop Kitchen, Corner Alley and Accent Restaurant have all closed in recent years. The Elassals cited parking and high rents as the main reasons for the struggling business. The couple said these two factors made it difficult for business to survive in the area.
“For local people, it’s fine, but for people outside the area, it’s so hard to find parking,” said Mr. Elassal. “No one wants to have a sandwich for three dollars and pay five dollars for parking.”
The duo did not receive an explanation for why UCI wanted a different business in the space. When Happy Dog closed, UCI President Chris Ronayne said that a high concentration of international students “are very studious and don’t go out as much or have as much money,” meaning restaurants had to be mindful of pricing, according to Cleveland.com. Falafel Cafe, with plentiful affordable vegetarian options—such as a falafel sandwich priced at five dollars on its own, eight dollars with a salad and drink—seemed to fit the mold.
UCI did not respond to requests via email for comment on the closing of Happy Dog or Falafel Cafe.
The Elassals started off in the food business by running a catering business from home. Mr. Elassal was a manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken, while his wife raised their children at home. The catering business lasted for two years until they decided to create a brick and mortar location. The duo opened Falafel Cafe in 1997 in Beachwood, before moving to Euclid Avenue in 2000. The restaurant will move to a new location in the University Circle area with a different landlord to ensure the situation with UCI does not repeat itself.
Ms. Elassal said she plans to reopen the restaurant in March and that she will not miss its old location.
“As long as I keep my customers, I don’t miss the place,” said Ms. Elassal. “My customers are what make me stay in this place. If I don’t have customers and I can’t pay my rent, what’s the place for?”
One of Falafel Cafe’s more notable regular customers was the Case Western Reserve University Institute for the Science of Origins. The department held a weekly Wednesday lunch at the restaurant. When news of the move reached them, the department honored their meeting place with a party, featuring speeches and a bouquet, according to Ms. Elassal.
Patricia Princehouse, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary biology and the history and philosophy of science, said the society began hosting events at the restaurant five years ago. The restaurant’s warm ambience created a relaxed environment which would foster discussion. For Princehouse, some of her fondest memories are of seeing the husband and wife team at work.
“[I remember] coming in and seeing [Mr. Elassal] behind the counter, his good-natured banter with the cooks,” said Pincehouse, “[Ms. Elassal] fluttering about making sure everyone got everything they wanted.”
Princehouse said the restaurants closing reflects badly on the University Circle area. Many of the restaurants in Uptown are fast-casual chains, such as Potbelly and Chipotle. She said the community should aim for the long term stability and local feel, which Falafel Cafe represented.
“One thing [University Circle] lacks that most college towns have is some sort of quirky local place with a friendly vibe and health food and vegetarian dishes in addition to diner fare,” she said. “[The Jolly Scholar] has gone through a succession of names trying to manufacture such a place, but the closest genuine things we’ve had to that are Falafel Cafe and Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern. Both of which are closing due to active decisions on the part of University Circle.”