International franchise shuts down DC branch

After four years of operation, Kababji Grill, a Lebanese food franchise, closed the doors of its D.C. location. The restaurant was the only one of its kind in the United States.

Kababji serves traditional Lebanese cuisine in a modern, casual setting. The first Kababji Grill was opened in Jounieh, a city north of Beirut, Lebanon, in 1993. Today, the franchise has more than 30 locations in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Dubai, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The Washington location was the first and only establishment outside of the Middle East.

“It was an experiment,” said Abed Matar, the executive chef of the restaurant. “We wanted to have a presence in one of the more internationally minded cities in America. That’s why we chose D.C.,” he said.

Matar has been with Kababji for more than eight years.  At the request of Kababji CEO, Toufic Khoueiri, he followed the franchise to D.C. in 2009 when the $5 million establishment was first built.

“We were trying to diversify the American palate in our own way,” Matar said. “But in America, business is way different.” Matar went on to explain that in the Middle East, advertising is a lot easier, because a smaller audience is being targeted. “In Lebanon, everyone knows what Kababji is. It’s like the Panera Bread of the Arab world. Here in America, our presence isn’t as big, so it’s harder to make ourselves known.”

Over the years, Kababji participated in many customer loyalty and food delivery programs in D.C., including Belly, Seamless, Grubhub, Foodler and Groupon, in order to expand their regular customer base.

“We exhausted every option, but it just wasn’t working. I guess your average American doesn’t know much about Lebanese food, and doesn’t want to try it,” said Mahjoub Aoualhab, the assistant manager of the D.C. branch.

Kababji was unique in that it offered quick Lebanese kababs and mezza on the go, in contrast to Lebanese Taverna, which has been in Washington and the surrounding metro area for more than 15 years. “At Lebanese Taverna, you go in and sit down. It’s a lot fancier than Kababji, and it has a much bigger customer base. Maybe that’s why it works,” said Aoualhab.

Matar and Aoualhab agreed that advertising — or lack of it — was the primary reason the restaurant shut down. “We just didn’t have enough customers walking through our doors,” said Aoualhab.

Instead of retiring back to the Middle East, Khoueiri has decided to downgrade from a restaurant and full bar to a kitchen. The kitchen, still a work in progress, would be reserved strictly for deliveries, takeout orders, and catering events.

“I have seen this place grow, and I know that we’ve made an impact on the D.C. food scene. At least we can say we tried,” Matar said.

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