Our story begins simply: Its 1956 and Ralph Abdallah is the eldest child of a poor Lebanese family.
With limited food the last one to the table often left hungry and with little money, the young man is forced to make a difficult decision. Though he speaks little English, he leaves his parents and eight brothers and sisters to seek his fortune in America.
He makes his way to the New World, and after a series of struggles, births a series of successful delis and restaurants. In retrospect, you can almost see Horatio Alger smiling.
I was 21 years old. Abdallah explains. I looked around. I said to myself, Ive worked all my life. I dont have 10 cents in my pocket. I want to get married and have a family like my father. I just couldnt afford it. I could never ask a girl out.
But upon his arrival, the language barrier was just too tough for Abdallah to overcome. Unable to find a job, he entered the service. Again, his lack of English proficiency tossed up roadblocks, and he was discharged after only three months. He found himself in Canada, and studied the dictionary before finally returning to live with a cousin in Cleveland.
Armed with passable language skills, Abdallah set out to build his life and bring his remaining family over from the Middle East. But he faced another challenge: I couldnt find a job, he says.
So Abdallah opened a small combination grocery/deli across the street from Fenn College. Students came in looking for sandwiches, so he put cold cuts onto pita bread and soon learned the profit margin on the sandwiches was better than on the groceries.
With a little bit of money, and now a citizen of the United States, Abdallah brought his father to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1964. A year later, the rest of the family followed.
At this point, the scene begins to resemble that of our opening only this time in America. The complications resulting from being a family with limited English skills began to reappear. While the younger children attended school, it took a few years before they were fully integrated into society. As they learned, Abdallah hatched a plan.
Jeannette (the youngest sister) was about 10 years old, so I had to take her to school, says Abdallah. We were looking for something to do. So my mother said to me, Why dont you get them a little place and let them bus (tables) around some?
Ralph knew nothing about the restaurant business, other than what he had learned from his less-than-adequate experience with the pita sandwiches, but a friend convinced him to take a chance on a little place he heard about for sale on St. Clair Avenue called Larrys Ham and Eggs. The owner, Larry, was a crabby fellow who was ready to retire and willing to stay on for a couple of weeks to teach Ralph the business.
I learned the food business from Larry, Ralph says. Larry was with me for two weeks. It was in the contract to help me out. I was involved in so many things. So my brother would help me wash the dishes. My sisters were the waitresses.
We started so small we used to take $150 a day. That was a big business day.
Ralph changed the restaurants name to Slymans Restaurant, mainly because it catered to a largely Jewish clientele.
If I call it Abdallahs, who the hell is going to come to me? Ralph recalls with characteristic honesty.
Slyman was Ralphs grandfathers last name (Abdallah, the name the family adopted, was his first).
The practical approach was typical of his approach to business Ralph knew that many Jews might not patronize a restaurant serving Jewish fare if they believed it was owned by non-Jews.
Thus began the legacy. My sisters and my brothers started getting married and having their own families, he says. And they learned the business from that little place.
Ralph, who never really loved the restaurant business, returned to his store and turned the restaurant over to his brother, Joe. Today, delis that trace their lineage to Ralph Abdallah and Slymans are scattered across Northeast Ohio.
Little 10-year-old Jeannette Abdallah (now Jeannette Kanaan) and her husband are the owners of Joes Deli & Restaurant in Rocky River. Slymans is still in the family, along with Superior Restaurant, Johnnies Deli & Restaurant, Tonys Deli & Restaurant, Sammys Deli, Dannys Deli, Joes Deli (Lakewood), Tinas Deli & Restaurant and Neds. Jeannette estimates that combined, they serve between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of corned beef each day.
Its well after breakfast time and more than an hour before the mad lunch rush. Hungry diners waiting for a table are assaulted by the scent of corned beef wafting heavily in the air. A nearby dessert case displays luscious-looking offerings that test the willpower of even the most devout dieter.
The scene is played out daily at Joes Deli. Owned by Joe and Jeannette Kanaan, the restaurant has amassed a dedicated following with a simple formula: Provide your clientele with a good product at a fair price in a clean environment.
A clean restaurant is vital, Jeannette says. The Kanaans spend $2,000 every month to keep it that way. Its one of the important lessons they learned from Ralph.
Another is to offer your customers quality. It may cost a bit more up front, but the payout comes in the long run. Ralph once tried a cheaper brand of coffee, but the experiment lasted just two days before he called the vendor and returned the inferior quality brew.
You can make profit on volume, Jeannette says. Its not on items. Most of the people tell you to go the other way. You might have to work a little harder.
But thats not how Joe and Jeannette started out. They owned a restaurant in the old Buckley Building, next door to the Allen Theater. Once, a close friend suggested they clean the windows. They complied, and the simple move helped double their business.
Like Ralph, however, owning a restaurant wasnt their first choice. Joe was a plumber by training, but couldnt find work. As for Jeannette, growing up and working in a restaurant left a sour taste in her mouth for the business.
I knew I had to marry Lebanese, she explains, I knew I didnt want to marry somebody with a restaurant. But here we are.
Not all the Abdallah children own delicatessens, and a few of the nine are owned by relatives or through marriage. The Kanaans, Georges and Abdallahs have mingled and married, but their businesses all evolved from Ralph Abdallah.
As each got started, the others helped any way they could either monetarily or by working in the restaurants. It was hard for a family member to walk in to one of the others restaurants without being put to work.
My sister Mary started wearing her mink here, Jeannette says. It wasnt even that cold out. A customer asked, Mary, why wear the mink? She goes, Thats the only way my sister wont put me to work. Every time I come, Im either making toast or cleaning tables.
Im so grateful, she continues. Family is so important.
This is our storys epilogue: Now 64 years old and retired, Ralph enjoys reflecting on the corned beef empire he created. The family is no longer poor and there is plenty of food plenty of excellent food to eat. Its an irony not lost on Ralph Abdallah.
I love it, he says. I really sit back and think, From that small place, look what we have here.
The appreciation Jeannette has for her older brother is clear.
Maybe we dont say it enough times, she begins. Were rea lly, really grateful. You took us from the gutter and brought us to heaven. Ralph has been a big, big influence in our lives. He taught us.
When we came here, we knew nothing. He taught us hard work and honesty and good character. He did a lot without, so we could have.
How to reach: Joes Deli & Restaurant, (440) 333-7890
Dan Jacobs (email@example.com) is senior editor at SBN magazine.