SCHENECTADY — A biochemistry graduate would see tzatziki sauce more than stethoscopes after departing from the University at Albany.
And it became the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Of course, there were thoughts about the risks of doing it,” said Bashir Chedrawee, 29, about taking on Simone’s Kitchen. “But ultimately, the upside for me was just so great that I just kind of ignored all the risks and just kind of went all in on.”
While awaiting interviews for medical schools in 2018, Bashir’s mother Simone Chedrawee asked him to help operate a new Mediterranean restaurant in Coxsackie. Bashir as a child had helped out an Albany restaurant run by his Lebanese immigrant family, so this venture — although expected to be temporary — was, for him, in his wheelhouse.
Day 1 of opening: A few people stopped in Simone’s Kitchen.
Day 2: There was a line out the door.
Day 3: The restaurant was packed.
Quickly, it became too overwhelming for the mother, leaving her to exit the business. Bashir ultimately had to decide the restaurant’s fate within his first six months in the business.
“She wanted a small place with a couple of tables that she could go out and serve and it turned into a really bustling space,” said Bashir. “Really, it did turn into what my vision for it was, I just didn’t know that it was going to happen that quickly.”
Under Bashir’s direction, Simone’s Kitchen sold family-inspired Mediterranean recipes anchored by a service line model. Mezza, the restaurant’s signature dish, incorporates a tapas-style take on chicken shawarma, falafel and meatballs.
Much of the menu was void of “extremely overwhelming” flavors to woo a general audience.
“You’re seeing fresh bowls of fruit, fresh salads always and even our chicken shawarma has all the spices of a traditional shawarma,” Bashir said. “But again, it doesn’t have that intensity that you have to be from Lebanon to be able to handle it.”
The concept allured college friend Shan Kaurejo and later service worker Jules Tromley to help run the establishment after Chedrawee matriarch left. The group, now deemed by Bashir as the “co-founders” was ill-equipped.
“It was just a George Foreman griddle and a little icebox,” Bashir said. “We didn’t have any real equipment. Every dollar we made, we reinvested into the business.”
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The facility doubled in capacity in 2019. However, early the next year, that space was empty. COVID-19 hit.
A blend of pre-mandate employee masking and a regional delivery marketing campaign, Bashir said, prevented Simone’s Kitchen from faltering.
“The reason we had so much business from Coxsackie is because not only do we have that small town, but every town to the south, north and — I don’t think there’s an east because of the Hudson River,” Bashir said with a laugh. “But all those towns: Greenville, Catskill, Ravena, were all part of that customer base.”
After smashing sales records, their ambitions grew.
“At that point, we’re successful,” he said. “And we say, ‘Let’s take our concept somewhere else.”
Simone’s Kitchen in August opened a location at the site of The Benjamin in Schenectady, an area where the partners found a “sense of community that was unique for a city.”
The Spraragen Partners-owned location was unrenovated at the time they agreed to rent the property in 2021. The building, located at the corner of Franklin Street and Jay Street, had been bought by the family company about a year earlier.
The building was “ugly” at first, Bashir said, but through renovation became the first space “made for Simone’s Kitchen because the first location was piecemeal.”
The Coxsackie site has been under renovation for about a year now. He expects staff numbers to jump from 20 to 40 once the site reopens in 2023.
Bashir has adopted what he considers a tech world-inspired livability standards for employees: free food and drinks and a 50% discount outside of shifts; a gym membership; free Spotify access; telemedicine access; IRA bonuses for 23-hour or more work weeks.
Workers receive a starting wage of $15 an hour plus tips. If tips don’t bring employees up to $16.50 an hour, Simone’s Kitchen will match it in the next paycheck.
“We put our people first, put our space first, put our customers first, and then make money,” Bashir said. “And that, I think, is one of the biggest ideas that we want to introduce to the restaurant industry, which is that you can strike that balance between being a good employer, offering a great product and being profitable.”
The model isn’t profitable yet. However, Bashir is optimistic that facility and staff investments will eventually pay off. He aims to open at least five more Simone’s Kitchen restaurant locations in the Capital Region and potentially more if the investment doesn’t oversaturate the market.
“We’re in that phase now where we’re spending energy, we’re spending time, we’re spending money on really building ourselves out to be who we want to be,” Bashir said. “And then from there, we’ll really focus on making more money.”
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.