By Anne Ford, Special to the Tribune
March 14, 2013
In the beginning, it was just the two of them: Falah Tabahi and his wife, Asma, a couple of Jordanian immigrants trying to make a go of a small Middle Eastern restaurant in Skokie called Pita Inn.
Back then, Falah himself cooked all the food — crunchy falafel and creamy hummus, tender shawarma and cool, minty yogurt salad. Asma rang up customers and bused tables, while their small son, Hazem, stood on a stack of phone books so he could fill glasses and make change.
In those pre-Food Network days, many customers had never heard of the items on the menu. Tabbouleh? Kibbeh? Baba ghanoush?
"Try before you buy," the couple urged, handing out samples. Still, aside from one day when they made a glorious $98 ("We were so happy," Asma remembered.) business was sometimes so slow that they had nothing to do but sit, look at each other and say, "When the money comes, it comes."
Thirty-one years later, the customers have come — and brought their money with them. Though the Tabahis will still hand out samples to anyone who asks, hardly anyone does these days: Pita Inn's deeply loyal customers know the food, and know they love it.
So many cars throng the restaurant's parking lot at lunch and dinnertime that on a recent Friday, one desperate diner had resorted to parking with one set of wheels on the curb.
Inside, customers queued up in a thick mass, rattling off their orders to the quick-moving young men behind the counter, then listening above the chatter for their numbers to be called so they could dart up and snag their food, perhaps with a glass of mint iced tea or tamarind juice in hand. There's no messing around at Pita Inn, particularly since many customers stop on their way to or from O'Hare. (One customer recently asked if the restaurant could add an area to store luggage.) Next door, workers in the Pita Inn Market and Bakery turn out nearly 7,000 pitas a day, none available for sale to outside businesses.
The Tabahis opened a second location in Wheeling in 1992; the third, in Glenview, sprang up 10 years later. A fourth will open March 17 in Mundelein. Plans for a Naperville location are in the works. Meanwhile, the Skokie site is scheduled for expansion, including a 25 percent increase in parking, later this year.
Hazem (who left the phone books behind long ago), his sister Suhad and his brother Eyad handle most of Pita Inn's day-to-day affairs now. (Another sister is not involved in the business.) But their father usually visits at least one of his restaurants each day, making sure that the recipes and procedures he implemented more than three decades ago are still in place.
"I tell them, 'You have to do everything my way,' because my way has been successful," Falah said.
"Anyone I hire as a chef, I tell them: 'Keep what you know for yourself. You have to learn my way. That's why my food tastes all the time the same,'" he said.
That consistency is "the hallmark of a fine restaurant," said longtime customer Cary Miller. The vice president of Food Industry News (a trade publication based in Park Ridge) and a member of the prestigious culinary fraternity Les Amis d'Escoffier Society of Chicago, he's eaten at Pita Inn about twice a week for decades.
"I remember riding my bike over there with some of my neighborhood buddies, getting falafel after school," Miller said. "We'd blow off french fries and hot dogs for hummus, baba ghanoush. It's the restaurant that I gauge all other Middle Eastern restaurants by."
It's not just Pita Inn's flavors that draw customers. It's the prices. It takes a truly enormous appetite to break a $10 bill here. The "business lunch special" Falah introduced shortly after the original Pita Inn opened in 1982 cost $3.95 then, and it costs $3.95 now.
"Shawarma, falafel, shish kebab, kifta kebab, rice, salad, hot sauce, pita bread," Falah reeled off. (An extra dollar gets you a marinated chicken tender as well.) "The customers, they tell me they cannot even finish it. They will have the rest of it for dinner."
How has the Pita Inn empire thrived with such low prices?
"We work in high quantity," Falah said. "We are very busy. If we are slow, we cannot afford it."
Certainly Pita Inn customers are a faithful bunch. "There have been times when I've been eating there five days a week," said Steven Meralevitz of Buffalo Grove, a Pita Inn regular since 1989. Over the years, he's gotten to know the Tabahis so well that when his elderly mother pulled through a health scare four years ago, Falah told him, "Steve, you eat on the house tonight," and gave him a tray of baklava to take to the hospital.
It's that generosity of spirit that has kept Pita Inn's prices so low over the years, Miller said: "I asked Falah eight or 10 years ago, 'Why don't you raise prices?' It was right in the middle of meat prices going crazy. Every one of my customers that used meat, they were all raising prices like the dickens.
"He said to me, 'My restaurant building is paid for. I own the strip mall next to the restaurant. I own my house. I put my kids through college. What do I need to raise prices for?'"
3910 Dempster St., Skokie; 847-677-0211; (For additional locations, go to pita-inn.com)
Established: 1982 (original location)
Known for: Business lunch special