ALBANY -- Ramzy Ayyad knows that if money were the only motivating force behind his family-owned restaurant, Zaki Kabob House, there might have been other ways to drive up the numbers. Serve alcohol and breakfast. Cut corners on ingredients.
But for Ayyad, that would be straying from the course.
"If you keep the emphasis on your core concepts and beliefs, I think you have a chance to succeed," Ayyad said. "Early on we tried to have breakfast and eggs Benedict, but it just didn't feel right."
For the last three years, business for the Albany restaurant -- named after the Arab word for delicious -- has been steady. What cost about $100,000 of their own money to start is currently bringing in about $30,000 a month in revenues. He hopes to turn a profit in the next three years.
Ayyad understands that the restaurant business is one of the most difficult to break into. The California Restaurant Association estimates that there are about 90,000 eating or drinking establishments in the state.
And the establishment's location at 1101 San Pablo Ave. is a challenge, too.
"This was a site of many failed restaurants, from KFC to taquerias to doughnut places," Ayyad said.
But instead of having another hamburger grill or franchise, he hopes his Middle Eastern fare will help the restaurant stand out from the crowd.
The food itself is made as close as possible to dishes that would be found in the regions of Palestine, Syria
"We get (customers) in with the chicken, and then once they've been sold on that, we show them some of the other menu items," he said.
The menu is extensive, including special sections for vegans and another for those on low-carb diets who can do without the rice.
Because of religious reasons, his establishment doesn't serve alcohol.
The entire operation also has been Halal certified, which means the food is permissible according to Islamic law. For example, all the animals have to be hand slaughtered and their blood drained to avoid disease. Ayyad orders his lamb from Australia because it's the closest place he found that does it this way.
However, he gets produce from the nearby Berkeley Bowl.
"Before I used to think that all parsley tastes the same, but after working at this restaurant, I realized where you get your produce and meats from makes a big difference," he said. "We try to keep the highest quality we can, even if it's going to cost us more money."
Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, says that restaurants are taking a hit because when there's a lack of disposable income, the number of times people go out to eat diminishes.
"Generally speaking, about 60 percent fail over the first three years, and right now I believe we're above those historic averages," Conway said.
For Zaki Kabob, the silver lining, Conway says, is that a Middle Eastern restaurant could provide a niche unusual enough that it could buck the odds.
"I think in California, where there's so much diversity and a lot of people who like to sample new cuisines, if you have a good, well-run restaurant that's less common than Chinese food, then you have a chance," he said.
Zaki Kabob itself is decorated with a number of traditional pieces from the Middle East. Along the perimeter, a graffiti artist designed a colorful mural for the restaurant.
Looking forward, Ayyad's goal is to increase the popularity of the establishment to where other locations could be opened. The 28-year-old graduate of San Francisco State, who originally wanted to be a chemist, also has ideas of having a Middle Eastern bakery one day.
"I'm always reading and looking for ideas to improve the business," he said. "If you don't keep thinking fresh and exciting, it's hard to survive."
Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8534.
Name: Zaki Kabob House
Address: 1101 San Pablo Ave, Albany
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily