Refugees from Iraq see restaurant success in Iowa

Iraqi Food
Posted at 3:23 PM, Sep 25, 2022

AMES, Iowa (AP) — Basma Zalzala moved her family to the United States in 2014 after her husband was killed by a bomb in Baghdad.

It was a big decision to seek a better, safer future.

“I had my daughter and three boys to take care of,” Zalzala said. “It was very hard because we didn’t speak the language. We could just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

The sole provider for her family, she often worked three or four jobs at a time to make ends meet. One of those jobs was working at Taza Fresh, a Mediterranean eatery that began as a food truck before it became a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Ankeny.

Founded by Thaer Taha, also a refugee from Iraq, Zalzala is now helping to expand the business with its first franchise location, now open in Ames.

Together she and her family — sons Ali Ahmed, Abdullah Ahmed and Emad Ahmed, and daughter and son-in-law Aaya Ahmed and Harith Alanbagi — own and work together in the restaurant, 1310 S. Duff Ave., which opened July 10.

“We were all already working with everybody in a different place,” Zalzala told the Ames Tribune. “So we thought, ‘Why not work together?’”

The day it opened, the line of customers reached almost all the way to Best Buy, said Ali Ahmed. “The first week, we would run out of food three or four hours before closing. And we were literally prepping for two days’ worth of business,” he said.

Their popularity in Ames was one of the reasons Taha decided to expand with franchises in the first place. People who’d eaten from the food truck parked at Iowa State University would travel to Ankeny “just to get the food” of shawarma, falafel, hummus and pita, Ali Ahmed said.

But there’s a deeper meaning to Taza Fresh’s expansion. Taha said he also wanted to give family members an opportunity to work together and create a successful business in the US.

And at a time when many restaurants are struggling to keep staff, family members coming together can be one answer to the problem, Taha said.

“I want to bring some traditional Middle Eastern foods here,” he said. “This concept will be for sure a successful (one) for the family to run their business.

Taha came to the United States as a refugee in 2009. He left his home country of Iraq in 1997 for employment opportunities in Dubai, and planned to work a few years before he moved back home to start a business.

“But by then the war had started. My country was destroyed by war after war,” he said.

He and his wife, Maruj, eventually moved to Malaysia, where they and another couple started a small bakery and grocery store.

Because of a visa denial, the couple moved to Jordan, where Maruj’s family had escaped to from Iraq. There, they applied to be refugees through the United Nations and after about two years, the United States accepted them.

“They told me Iowa was safe. Yes, they have very cold weather, but I was looking for a safe place for my children,” Taha said.

He worked at Dee Zee manufacturing and was a forklift driver at Firestone Tire Company. He eventually left manufacturing to get a feel for the American restaurant industry.

“I would work part-time in two restaurants at a time,” Taha said. “After one year, I decided to look for a restaurant.”

The investment was steep — about $400,000.

So he decided to start small and in April 2018, he started his own food truck.

“It was a very hard time at first because most of the people didn’t know our name. They didn’t know our product. ‘What is shawarma?’ ‘What is falafel?’ Sometimes we gave out samples more than we would sell,” he said.

Sometimes Taha would go home with zero sales, he said.

“It was a horrible experience. But I was fighting to run my business and take it to the next level.

“Me and my wife, we were knocking the doors. She was knocking the neighbors’ doors. I was knocking the company doors. ‘We have a food truck.’ ‘We can do catering,’” he said.

Taza Fresh eventually participated in the Food Truck Throwdown in downtown Des Moines — and won three trophies in two years. For a while, Taza Fresh also was a food truck vendor at Iowa State.

“The students loved us. It was easier than downtown because of the diversity. Some students were Indian, Arabic or Malaysian, so they knew Mediterranean food and they would educate their American friends,” Taha said.

The food truck experiences gave the Tahas the push they needed.

In March of 2020, Taha closed it down because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he kept developing recipes, and made plans to come back as a brick-and-mortar operation.

With support from the Ankeny Chamber of Commerce, Taza Fresh opened its first standalone location at the Des Moines Area Community College student center, 2006 S. Ankeny Blvd., in the former Leaning Tower of Pizza.

While the nuts and bolts of the restaurant aren’t from scratch, the food is. Taha has developed several recipes on Taza’s menu, and his goal is to make those recipes easily replicated at other locations.

“My goal isn’t about how much I’m earning today but how can I make it easy for other people to run this business,” he said. “Especially with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, it’s a little more complicated. It’s not just putting a hamburger on a grill.”

It’s something Taha said he devised to help take some risk out of the investment for his franchisees. Having the same cooking processes in multiple locations helps experiences remain consistent for customers, regardless of the location.

Although Zalzala’s family was not experienced in cooking, Taha was able to train her adult children to cook everything on the menu.

“They cook. They marinate. They do hummus. They do sauces. They cook the chicken and the steak. They follow the steps, 1-2-3,” Taha said. “They have a manual for that.”

“Anyone who has a passion, we are willing to train them from A-to-Z,” he said.

He also provides them with training and support for any new products that are added to the menu.

The only thing he doesn’t share? The recipe for his spice blend, which features eight to 10 ingredients that Taha mixes in Ankeny and sends to Ames.

“It’s a secret recipe and it’s the only thing I didn’t teach them how to make,” Taha said with a laugh.

The chicken shawarma has been the most popular menu item in Ames, but Ali Ahmed said his favorite is the steak shawarma. It’s also available with falafel as a vegetarian option.

“In the Middle East, shawarmas are for sure known to be chicken,” Ali Ahmed said. “Everybody is also really liking the falafel. It’s made identical to how it is made back home.”

Shawarma is thinly sliced chicken or steak that has been marinated overnight. It’s Taha’s own recipe, which includes citrus juice.

“Our spices, we don’t make it spicy but we make it flavorful,” he said. “Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors are not over-spiced. You cannot figure out what the spices are — it’s about the blend.”

The restaurant’s signature shawarma is a wrap made out of pita, often found as street food in the Middle East. It includes french fries, garlic sauce and pickles.

“This is our street food and we want to keep it a little bit unique. Sometimes customers will say, ‘What? It has fries in it?’ And I’ll say, ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back,’” Taha said.

“They always like it.”

The spring shawarma is a grilled wrap that includes tomato and onion instead of fries. It also comes as a bowl, which includes basmati rice cooked with Taha’s blend of spice.

Falafel is available on shawarma or as a side.

“Falafel is hard to find in Iowa in general and ours is gluten-free,” Taha said. “We make it from only chickpeas, vegetables, herbs and spices.”

Hummus, tzatziki and the baba ganouj are all made from scratch.

“Many ingredients in our cuisine are very healthy. Like the chickpeas are rich in protein and iron, and sesame seeds are very rich in calcium,” Taha said. “We have many options that are healthy and flavorful too.”

Homemade baklava and healthy granola bars are often available as desserts.

At the end of the day, sharing the flavors of their home country is fulfilling, Abdullah Ahmed said. And living up to the Taza Fresh name — Taza means fresh in Arabic — by making food from scratch each day is important to them.

“We love for our customers to see what other good food is out there that they just haven’t been introduced to,” Ali Ahmed said.

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