Syrian diner trying to stay afloat amid coronavirus pandemic

In a photo from March 29, 2020, husband and wife co-owners Ammar Zein and Nahed Lotf work in the kitchen of their Syrian restaurant, Pattternz, in Sterling Heights, Mich.The family escaped Syria's civil war and the desperation caused by it. After settling in the Detroit suburb, they opened a restaurant and years later because of the coronavirus everything they had built anew for themselves began to slowly slip through their fingers yet again — this time not from bombs but by the spread of a new kind of virus that attacked human respiratory systems. (Mark Kurlyandchick/Detroit Free Press via AP)



Detroit Free Press

AP Member Exchange

DETROIT — It was war that took it from them the first time they lost everything.

Their sixth-floor flat in the heart of Damascus, the city where they were born, met, married, raised children and lived their whole lives; the clothing factory they owned nearby and the textiles business it supported; their livelihoods, routines, social connections, the entire fabric of home — all lost to the bombs and violence of Syria’s nearly decade-long civil war and the desperation caused by it.

Husband and wife Ammar Zein and Nahed Lotf escaped with their lives and their health — hamdullah! — and their children did, too, scattered around the world as they were now, but alive and healthy nonetheless.

It took years for them to find some sure footing in their new home in suburban Detroit, for Nahed to turn her family recipes and discerning taste and stove top abilities into a viable business, for enough of her friends and acquaintances to coax her into taking the leap, for some of those same friends and family to loan her and Ammar tens of thousands of dollars, and for the banks to lend them some more.

It had been humbling, running a little restaurant in a big new land, especially for the first-time restaurateurs who spoke almost no English, the Detroit Free Press reported.

In February, after nearly two years of toil and sweat and nonstop cooking, the couple had finally clawed their way into the black at their home-style Syrian diner. Pattternz, as they called the restaurant, was quaint compared with the women’s and kid’s clothing company they used to run in Damascus, with its 40-some employees and $1.5 million in annual revenue.

But things were looking up.

In February, their harrowing story of resilience had been featured in an online Arabic news show that garnered more than 1 million views. And a restaurant critic from the big city paper had come in to eat with his family and was preparing to write a splashy article. Their little family-run business was poised to take off in a big way.

But then came March and the first cases of coronavirus in Michigan and suddenly everything they had built anew for themselves began to slowly slip through their fingers yet again — this time not from bombs or humanity’s proclivity for violent conflict, but by the spread of a new kind of virus that attacked human respiratory systems with no respect for borders or business plans and no known cures or vaccines to keep it at bay.

This time, there was nowhere else to run.

Now, having survived a devastating war, Ammar, 63, and Nahed, 55, are fighting to keep their little restaurant afloat through the COVID-19 crisis, despite plummeting sales and a statewide ban on dining in restaurants, not to mention the threat of catching a disease that seems to particularly prey on people their age.

I first visited Pattternz in late February, though the Sterling Heights strip-mall spot had been on my radar since last September, when the couple’s eldest daughter Alaa messaged me via the restaurant’s Instagram account, which she runs from Abu Dhabi.

“I personally live far away but I try my best to help them by telling people about their story,” Alaa wrote. “A story of (a) beloved couple who went against the odds to prove to the world that we can be stronger than our difficult circumstances.”

Alaa went on to detail the restaurant’s homey atmosphere, her mother’s legendary cooking skills, her father’s inexpert but charming service, how she handled marketing for the restaurant remotely and at no cost, how her architect husband designed the place and how her other sister manages their books.

“We all give free service to our parents as we are in debt to them for the great love and passion they used and still are offering our family,” she concluded.

Despite its sizable Arab population and profusion of Middle Eastern food, metro Detroit isn’t home to many dedicated Syrian restaurants. In the Chaldean-heavy suburb of Sterling Heights, many of the local restaurants serve Iraqi food or their take on the more ubiquitous Lebanese cuisine.

Sandwiched between a hair salon and a hookah shop smack dab in the middle of a prosaic strip mall, Pattternz hardly stands out. But the fare here will be both familiar to many area diners thanks to significant similarities with Lebanese food — there’s only 50 miles and mountains separating Damascus from Beirut, after all — and novel enough to seek out for its unique offerings.

Along with the requisite shawarma, stuffed grape leaves, kafta and falafel, many of the dishes Nahed cooks at Pattternz aren’t typical of restaurant menus in general. She was a home cook, first, and the food she cooks now for the public reflects that.

“Even in Syria among family and friends, her food was always special,” said youngest daughter Gazal, visiting from college in Ohio and acting as de facto interpreter. “She never believed she’s actually the best. Instead, she’s always competing with herself and trying the best way to make everything.”

After the war broke out, Ammar tried to salvage the family’s business in Saudi Arabia while Nahed and Gazal, just a teenager at the time, stayed behind in Damascus. From their flat in the Barze neighborhood, the epicenter of the revolution, mother and daughter had a haunting front seat to the violence all around them.

“We would see rebels throwing glass at police and we could see the police shooting them,” Gazal recalled.

Helicopters would fly so close to their building, you could reach out and touch them, Nahed said.

It was a terrifying and depressing and anxiety-ridden existence, but Nahed’s passion for food helped bring a sense of normalcy to a life upended.

“Even though all this was happening, it’s really funny that Mom and her brother decided to get 10 kilos of olives for the summer,” Gazal said, able to laugh about it all these years later. “She cares about food a lot.”

To that end, Nahed never buys premixed spice blends, instead going from one store to another to find the ones that smell the best and then mixes them herself, imparting an added spark of lively energy to the already flavorful cuisine.

Not to be missed, the falafel at Pattternz is slightly different than elsewhere. It’s lighter in color and springy in texture, shaped by a 50-year-old tool passed down from Nahed’s brother, who ran a falafel shop in Syria.

Same with the kabsah, the national dish of Saudi Arabia and a nod to the few years Ammar tried to salvage his floundering textiles business in that country after the war broke out. You can find kabsah spice mixes at local Middle Eastern markets, but Nahed insists on mixing her own. It’s served with a slow-cooked lamb shank with fall-off-the-bone meat. It’s difficult to find a more comforting meal or a better version of rice anywhere.

The entire sprawling menu of 20-some main dishes and just as many sides, salads and starters is available to order for curbside carryout. But it almost wasn’t so.

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order prohibiting on-premise dining in all Michigan restaurants was announced, I received a frantic Facebook message from Alaa.

“Yesterday no one showed up or called for a takeout,” she wrote. “It’s really hard but still my parents insist they don’t want to give up. If they close today, they’d lose their business maybe for good.”

In late March the family decided to close down for two weeks. Ammar does the shopping for the restaurant and Nahed was worried about her husband being out and about.

He’s in his 60s and has high blood pressure, both facts that make him more susceptible to COVID-19.

The decision to close didn’t last long though.

“Mom said, ‘I can’t stay home for two weeks!'” said Gazal.