It's a shawarma thing

The inside story about how the shawarma became Ottawa's most popular fast food
shawarma
Photo by Julie Oliver

There is a school of thought that claims most great events in human history were accidents. The events happened not by design but by happenstance or fortunate coincidence.

A great many business stories are like that. Fifteen years ago, some snowboarders partnered up to try and sell snowboards online, couldn’t find the right software program, had to design their own, and voila – Shopify.

Shopify has always seemed the best local example of a “history is accident” business story.  But maybe there’s a better one. A story that will answer a decades-old business question and also explain why the restaurant industry in Ottawa is different from any other city in Canada.

It’s a shawarma story.

It would be hard to overstate the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa. For those who have never eaten one (a difficult thing to imagine), shawarma is a pita sandwich made with meat roasted on a vertical rotisserie (in Ottawa, the meat is normally beef or chicken), then garnished with an embarrassing amount of pickles, onions, garlic sauce, hummus, and pickled turnips.

The word derives from the Turkish word cevirme, which means turning (a reference to the rotisserie) and shawarmas are popular throughout the Middle East. In Egypt and Lebanon shawarmas are sold by countless street vendors and are considered both countries’ most popular fast food.

It’s also the most popular fast food in Ottawa.

While it’s hard to get definitive numbers on such things, according to the Yelp yellow pages there are 196 shawarma shops in Ottawa. That works out to more shawarma shops than all the McDonalds, A&W, Burger King, Wendy’s and Harvey’s restaurants in the city.

More shawarma shops than fast-food burger joints. Is there another city in North America that can claim such a thing?

Ottawa also has more shawarma shops than sub shops, and three times more shawarma than pho.

“It is insane, how popular shawarmas are in Ottawa,” says Sarah Chown, a spokesperson for the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association. “I’m not a fan myself, but everyone I know just loves them. They’re everywhere in Ottawa.”

So - how did that happen? What made shawarmas so popular in the nation’s capital En Route magazine went so far as to call them “Ottawa’s quintessential food?”

Not Beavertails. Not poutine. The shawarma.

“Why are shawarmas so popular in Ottawa – gosh, that’s an old question,” says Chown. “It gets debated, but how can you ever answer?”

I’m going to suggest by finding ground zero. The first shawarma shop in Ottawa. Figure out what happened after that.

And we can do that. The first shawarma shop in Ottawa opened on Elgin Street, between Gladstone and Frank, in the spring of 1984. It was called Marroush, and it was co-founded by 24-year-old Moustafa al Hajjar, whose job before becoming a small business owner was dishwasher.

News stories and documentaries have been done on Marroush, which closed its doors in 2012, but al Hajjar has rarely been interviewed. Many people think his name is Marroush.

“That’s the name of a restaurant chain in Lebanon,” he explains, when I tracked him down. “I figured people from Lebanon would know the name and know what I was doing. Having the name Marroush was like having free advertising.”

No one outside the Lebanese community, though, had heard the name or understood what he was doing.

“People would come in and ask for a burger and I’d say ‘No, no, it’s shawarma,” and they’d say ‘No burger? You’re a restaurant, aren’t you?’”

That lasted two years. Marroush was in trouble, the restaurant probably only weeks away from closing its doors when al Hajjar decided to extend the hours of operation to 3 a.m. every day.

Later that same week the after-hours bar crowd discovered shawarma.

This is the place in the narrative where history-is-accident kicks into high gear, for everything that happens next came as a surprise to al Hajjar, and by extension, the city of Ottawa. Not a single event was planned. Not a single event was unimportant.

And so, just to be clear – the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa has a lot to do with alcohol.

“The musicians that played in the local bands, the bartenders and the waiters from the clubs downtown, it was like they all discovered Marroush on the same night,” remembers al Hajjar. “All of a sudden it’s 2 a.m. and we’re packed. People lined up on Elgin Street waiting to get inside. It’s crazy.”

It would stay crazy for the next 20 years. People lining up on Elgin Street waiting to get inside the shawarma shop. People given numbers as they waited. People selling their numbers. People dancing on tables when they got inside the restaurant.

On weekend nights, Ottawa police would routinely direct traffic at the corner of Elgin and Gladstone simply to handle the overflow from Marroush.

“The bar crowd saved us,” says al Hajjar. “The bars in downtown Ottawa, that’s where shawarma started.”

Al Hajjar is 60 now, still in the shawarma game (he runs King Shawarma on Ogilvie Road), and he uses the word shawarma like it is a proper noun, like it is a word that should forever be capitalized. “Shawarma is a special thing,” he says several times during the interview, with no hint of youthful, playing-in-the-band irony.

He even seems to grow wistful when I tell him about En Route magazine, and that there are nearly 200 shawarma shops in Ottawa. “Two hundred,” he repeats a few times. “Man, I can remember when we didn’t have two customers.”

So – a question for the man who started it all – why are shawarmas so popular in Ottawa?

“Bunch of reasons,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone who ever worked in a shawarma shop wanted to open one, acting like bass players, that’s one reason.”

“Acting like bass players?”

“Yeah, you’ve never heard that joke? It’s just like Shawarma.”

For the record, here are the other reasons al Hajjar has for the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa:

The city has a large Lebanese community. The shawarma is value-for-money – “What would you rather have, a springroll or a shawarma? Come on.” It costs very little to open a shawarma shop.

Opening a shawarma shop is also the rare opportunity to become royalty. “It’s always Shawarma King, Shawarma Prince, Shawarma Princess, Shawarma Palace. Have you noticed that?” he says.

Yes, we’ve noticed that.

And then there’s the bass player reason, the reason al Hajjar thinks may be most important.

“You work in a shawarma shop, you’re carving the meat, pretty soon you think ‘I can do this.’ You leave and start your own shop. You can’t leave McDonald’s and start a McDonald’s, right?”

Never thought of that. Where does the bass player fit in?

“Shawarma is just like that joke about learning to play bass.”

If you’ve never heard it, here’s the joke: Student starts taking lessons in the electric bass. First lesson the student learns some notes. Second lesson the student learns some scales.

Student doesn’t show up for the third lesson. Doesn’t show up for the fourth lesson. Music teacher meets the student on the street one day and asks what’s happened. Student replies:

“Sorry, I’ve been meaning to send you a note. I joined a band.”

Same story. But in Ottawa, everyone bought turnip and opened a shawarma shop.

This article originally appeared in OBJ's winter newsmagazine: