Best in Class: Thirty Years of Mediterranean Deli

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How Jamil Kadoura went from running a falafel stand to owning a beloved deli, bakery and catering company

By Marie Muir / Photography by John Michael Simpson

How Jamil Kadoura went from running a falafel stand to owning a beloved deli, bakery and catering company
Jamil Kadoura poses for a portrait outside of Mediterranean Deli on West Franklin Street, the restaurant he owns and opened in 1991.

Born and raised in war-torn Jerusalem, Jamil Kadoura worked at a falafel stand outside of his school during recess. He was paid with either a falafel or a hummus sandwich. That gave Jamil an idea, and he suggested a new menu item – a sandwich that combined both, priced 5 cents higher. The cart owner rejected the notion. But that night, Jamil made a sign advertising it and set it on the falafel cart before heading to class. “Boy, everybody that came to the falafel cart that day ordered a falafel and hummus sandwich!” he recalls.

Jamil moved to the U.S. and attended business school in Minneapolis in 1979. One of his first jobs was dishwashing at an all- you-can-eat Swedish “smorgasbord” restaurant. At 21, Jamil got a job at a Sheraton hotel in Raleigh. He worked for many hotels over the years, eventually becoming food and beverage director at the Europa Hotel (now the Sheraton Chapel Hill Hotel). Jamil met his wife, Angela Kadoura, at the Sheraton Imperial in Raleigh, and they married there in 1989. Together they have two daughters, Ambara Kadoura and Jenin Kadoura, and a son, Zidane Kadoura. “[My wife] made everything possible,” Jamil says. “She was somebody who said, ‘I believe in what you’re going to do. I think it’s going to work.’”

Angela, Jamil’s mother, Ayshi Kadoura, and his sister, Nabila Hasan, helped him open Mediterranean Deli’s brick-and-mortar in 1991, three doors down from its current West Franklin Street location. The menu featured only a handful of Middle Eastern dishes – hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli, baba ghanoush and falafel. Guests would sit in one of the deli’s 12 chairs while Jamil fried falafel outside behind the restaurant.

Mediterranean Deli found a hungry and compassionate community in Chapel Hill. After two years of business, the restaurant moved to its current storefront. It initially occupied the front quarter of the building, but as other tenants left, Jamil expanded – six times, in fact, before he purchased the entire building in 2012 – the same year he perfected his gluten-free pita bread recipe.

“If anybody ever asks me what the most important moment of my career was, it would be creating gluten-free pita,” Jamil says. The recipe contains four gluten-free flours and took Jamil more than a year to finalize. He spent many late nights alone in the kitchen, tweaking the ratios of each flour. Passersby on their way home from bars served as taste testers.

All recipes – whether they take one month or one year to develop – have to pass the same final exam: the deli case test. Customers get the last word on whether a dish is successful or not. Jamil found himself back in the kitchen during the pandemic, experimenting with new recipes as more and more catering events were canceled. “The COVID dishes,” as Jamil calls them, included beef tagine, chicken tagine, cauliflower rice, quinoa, spanakopita and shakshuka, a Tunisian dish. “I said to myself, ‘OK, either you sit here and feel sorry for yourself every day, or you go into the kitchen.’ There is nothing more relaxing in the whole world than going into the kitchen or into the dining room – running food and talking to people.”

Jamil’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavor is the purchase of West End Wine Bar, a block away. The newly renovated, three-story event venue will be named The Story in honor of the Chapel Hill Nine – nine Black teenagers from Lincoln High School who sat at a booth in Colonial Drug Store (a former occupant of the building) for equal rights on Feb. 28, 1960.

At press time, the venue was slated to open in June, and reservations are available. Jamil described its interior design as rustic, elegant and simple – a perfect blank canvas. The venue will undergo rooftop renovations in January 2022, creating a space for guests to overlook the buzz of Franklin Street below.

Today, Mediterranean Deli, Bakery and Catering is Jamil’s community center. It’s a place where friends, family, locals and visitors alike can gather peacefully. He recalls rushing home to his wife and young kids after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Jamil feared that people might want to hurt his family because of their ethnicity. Instead, it was Mediterranean Deli’s busiest month up to that date. “This is a beautiful community that believes in itself and believes in others and outsiders,” Jamil says.

Whether it’s through a falafel and hummus sandwich or hosting a fundraiser for Syrian refugees (which raised $27,000 in just 2 1⁄2 hours back in 2016), Mediterranean Deli is here to feed the soul.

Jamil’s … rules for opening a food and beverage business:

  • Invest everything you make back into the business. Every dollar that comes to you, put it back into the business.
  • Don’t start with a huge menu. Start with things people really like and you know will sell.

Favorite drink:

  • Freshly pressed carrot juice with ginger

Favorite dishes:

  • Bandora — sautéed tomatoes with jalapeños and garlic
  • Ful Medames — Egyptian national dish featuring fava beans, jalapeños and scallions
  • Shakshuka

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Chapel Hill Mag Intern

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