Amsterdam’s chef bolts to start his own self-serve falafel shop in Adams Morgan.
July 7 was payday at the Amsterdam Falafelshop, and every employee at the tiny brick falafel-and-fries outpost in Adams Morgan got a bonus with their paycheck: a confidentiality agreement to sign. Owners Scott and Arianne Bennett wanted to ensure that as their company grows—and grow it will in the next few years—employees won’t undermine it by starting or aiding copycat restaurants in the region. “Everyone in this restaurant had no problem signing it…except Walid,” says Arianne. “This raised a huge red flag for us.”
The owner is referring to 53-year-old chef Walid Abuelhawa. On repeated occasions, the Bennetts sat down with Abuelhawa and tried to explain why they were asking him to not sell his recipes to possible competitors—and to not open or even work for a restaurant in the District, Maryland, or Virginia with the exact same self-serve, build-your-own falafel concept. They were simply trying to protect their trade secrets as they began the process of opening four new shops in the area, with hopes of franchising across the country, like some sort of Chipotle for the humble Middle Eastern snack food.
The Bennetts even tailored an agreement specifically for Abuelhawa; they trimmed the original noncompete clause from five years to one year and added language that, in essence, said Abuelhawa could use his recipes at another restaurant, as long as it didn’t share the same concept as Amsterdam’s. No go. Abuelhawa still wouldn’t sign. “I’m the one who encouraged him, ‘Let’s go talk to your lawyer. Let’s get language in here that makes you happy. What is it that would make you happy?’” Arianne remembers. “He couldn’t tell me.”
Nearly three weeks later, with investors apparently breathing down their necks, the Bennetts told Abuelhawa at the end of the day on Wednesday, July 26, that the chef could only report back to work when he had the signed agreement in hand. Abuelhawa wasted little time making his decision: He handed the couple his keys and parted company.
The next day, the Bennetts say they spotted Abuelhawa in the kitchen at 1773 Columbia Road NW, just up the street from Amsterdam Falafelshop, in a space formerly occupied by a KFC. By early September, Abuelhawa and his business partner, Ali Abuelhawa, a distant relative from the same Jerusalem neighborhood as the chef, had transformed the former chicken outlet into Old City Café & Bakery, a Middle Eastern restaurant with shawarma, kebab, and falafel. The cafe’s most prominent feature? A self-serve, build-your-own falafel bar. It’s a page seemingly ripped from his old employer’s playbook.
“It’s disappointing to us that part of the restaurant that he’s created mimics our concept, because clearly no [falafel shop] in this area has that concept,” says Arianne. “He sits there and says, ‘Well, it exists in the world,’ and I say, ‘I appreciate that, but you didn’t bring this concept to this area, and you didn’t study it for a year and a half before opening a restaurant, so clearly the ideas are ours.’”
Perhaps this sounds like a garden-variety betrayal by an employee absconding with his former company’s concept and employing it to his own benefit. But the story is more complicated than that. Abuelhawa is a formally trained French chef who, as a child, learned how to make falafel and other Middle Eastern dishes at his father’s restaurant in Jerusalem. He moved to the United States in 1977, “searching for peace,” and began working at various restaurants in the region. But by the late ’80s, Abuelhawa found himself in hot water of another kind. He was convicted in 1989 on conspiracy, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and using a telephone to facilitate a drug deal. He served nearly 14 years in federal prison in Petersburg.
His first job out of the joint was at the Amsterdam Falafelshop, at the recommendation of Amsterdam’s original chef, Jamil Ashayer, who now works at Café Cozii in Arlington. Abuelhawa worked at Amsterdam for 23 months, and his employers say they grew quite fond of him—and wanted to keep him even when they suspected, long before Abuelhawa turned in his keys, that the chef was looking to start his own restaurant.
“We wanted to work with Walid going forward because we felt that we had built a relationship with him, that he added value to what we were doing, and that he deserved to go forward for an ultimate payout,” Arianne says. “Our ultimate goal is to be a large franchise and have the people who started it be the management team of that” and share in the profits.
“We had every intention of him being with us until we rode off into the sunset,” Scott adds. “Basically what he wanted to do was open his own joint.”
Abuelhawa, of course, has his own take on the split. He views himself—or, more specifically, his recipes—as the foundation of Amsterdam’s success. Abuelhawa figures it this way: Without his recipes—really, his father’s recipes—Amsterdam would not be raking in the cash and looking to franchise from here to eternity. He wasn’t about to forfeit his recipes and his ability to open whatever restaurant he wanted, wherever he wanted, without adequate compensation. He felt the Bennetts, despite their offers, never made a good-faith effort to compensate him.
“They didn’t give me anything, absolutely nothing, for the recipes,” he says. “I was there as an employee, and I gave them what actually they needed: the recipes. So why can’t I go and sell my recipes? Why they want to sell them themselves? They can sell those recipes themselves when they franchise….Why can they do that, and I can’t do that myself?”
Abuelhawa’s questions sound logical on the surface. They are really questions of intellectual property and one’s right to freely ply one’s trade. But these questions assume two things: that the recipes at Amsterdam are really Abuelhawa’s, and that they are the foundation of the falafel shop’s success.
On point No. 1, Amsterdam’s owners are adamant. They believe Abuelhawa is “off-base” in claiming that anyone owns the recipes. After all, says Arianne, the original chef worked with the Bennetts on creating them. “When the first chef left, our question to Walid was, ‘Can you make the recipes exactly the same way?’ And he said yes,” she says. “So I don’t think you can claim ownership of that.”
The Bennetts also aren’t buying the idea that Abuelhawa’s recipes are the main reason behind Amsterdam’s success. “The basis of our success is a self-toppings bar, is a pleasant environment, is a great staff that talks to you,” says Arianne. “I would say [customers] don’t know falafel well enough to know whose recipe is here. They’re here for the experience.” —Tim Carman
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