Lebanese Taverna Offers Fast-Casual
Co-owner Grace Abi-Najm Shea on the empire her parents built and a new format for the restaurant's quick service cafes.
Grace Abi-Najm Shea
It’s been 37 years since Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm opened the first Lebanese Taverna (www.lebanesetaverna.com) in Westover after fleeing their native land with five children. Today they’re retired, and the kids—powerhouses like Mom and Dad—run the show. We checked in with daughter Grace Abi-Najm Shea to see what’s cookin
How big is the family empire now?
We have six full-service restaurants, one market, four quick-service places that we call cafés, and a concession at Reagan National Airport that is a licensing agreement.
What is your title?
It’s a family affair, so we don’t really have titles. I do operations, oversee catering and cooking classes, and do a lot of sales and marketing. My sister, Gladys, is in charge of the cafés and most of the purchasing, networking and design. My brother Dany is the idea man and his wife, Jenifer, handles donations. David is the CFO—the money man. Dory is the official schmoozer.
Anything new on the menu?
Fast-casual has changed since we started the cafés in 1998, so we’re revamping them and adopting an Express format. You order a sandwich, salad bowl or rice bowl and choose your protein. But the toppings are fixed. We want to make sure our food stays Lebanese.
Does the current refugee crisis resonate with your family?
The American dream is our life. My parents came here with five kids, $500 and no English. We are still immigrants working with immigrants. At least 90 percent of our staff today are immigrants.
Where else do you eat in Arlington?
I have two kids, ages 9 and 8. Pie-tanza is a great place for pizzas, pastas and sandwiches. And we love Heidelberg Bakery—that was the first place I ever had a cronut. The Liberty Tavern is my husband’s and my go-to spot for a night out.