Middle-Eastern restaurants try to hold it together, while the American’s staff breaks up.

Give Pita a Chance 

Middle-Eastern restaurants try to hold it together, while the American’s staff breaks up.

Fallout from the September 11 bombings is taking its toll on at least two Middle-Eastern restaurants in Kansas City. Business has dropped off so dramatically at the Ali Baba Café (7630 Wornall Road) that owner Nazeeh Hajeeh is thinking of changing the restaurant's name to The Little Italy Café and dropping the Middle-Eastern dishes altogether.

"I've had to let my staff go because business is so terrible, and now I'm the cook, waiter and dishwasher," Hajeeh says, noting that on one recent night he didn't have a single customer. "It doesn't matter that I love America. My regular customers are afraid that angry mobs might do something to my restaurant -- simply because it serves Middle-Eastern food -- and they'll get hurt. This is very painful to me."

The trials of the Jerusalem Café (431 Westport Road) were reported on TV shortly after the terrorist attack, with manager Rafiq Ghazawi telling reporters that he'd received hostile phone calls and business was off by 90 percent.

"Now it's like 85 percent of what it was before September 11," says Ghazawi. "Our regular customers are trying to come in to support us, but instead of having a full dining room at lunch, we have two tables."

Things are cheerier at the Pyramids Café (3613 Broadway), where owner Rami Shukair says that business was agonizingly slow for a couple of days but "a lot of people are coming back in to support us. In fact, even more customers!

"It's been so wonderful to know that not all Arab-Americans are being considered villains," says Shukair. "This is a time for unity, not distrust. We're in this together."

Over at Crown Center's American Restaurant, however, togetherness isn't the current theme. The husband-and-wife team of Kathleen and Andy Jacot, who've spent nearly ten years overseeing the restaurant's catering arm, has departed. The pair purchased the eight-year-old Feasts of Fancy catering company from chef Diane Dougherty, who is trying to win a slot on the American Culinary Olympic Team.

Dougherty, who won a first-place silver medal at an international conference of chefs in Scotland last year (she took a bronze prize in 1999), plans to train intensively for the next nine months just to be able to try out for one of the coveted chef slots. "If I was ever going to do it," Dougherty says, "I had to give it everything."

The Jacots will take over Dougherty's kitchen space and client list and keep the Feasts of Fancy name. "Diane has a great reputation," Kathleen Jacot says. "That's one of the reasons we decided to finally make the jump to our own business."

Their boss at American Restaurant's parent company, Culinary Concepts' managing director Tom Johnson, is also leaving after a decade to start his own business: Johnson Hospitality Group. He'll be joined by his brother Robert, a Chicago restaurateur with three successful sushi restaurants in the Windy City's suburbs. The Johnsons plan to open Kansas City's first Sushi House in Town Center Plaza in December.

Tom has already taken over the lease at another Town Center Plaza restaurant, La Dolce Vita, and is expanding the menu (with consulting help from former American Restaurant chef Michael Smith). It's long been perceived as a strange hybrid of upscale coffee shop and Italian bistro, but Johnson plans to turn the place into a full-service restaurant. And he'll keep the name. Even when life is scary, it can be sweet.

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