In Palestine, Jamil Kadoura would not be called Jamil. Traditionally, once a Palestinian man has a son, he is usually called by his son’s name, with the prefix “Abu,” which translates to “father of.” Jamil and his wife, Angela, have three children: two daughters and a son, Zidane. Technically, Jamil should be called Abu Zidane.

But this is not what Jamil’s mother, Ayshi, called him before she passed away six years ago. Ever since he was a child growing up in Jerusalem, she called him Abu Iieta, which means “Father of Giving.”

He doesn’t remember exactly when she started calling him this. Maybe it was after Ayshi gave him her signature chickpea dish to sell in town and he gave every cup but two out for free. Maybe it was because she used to tell him, “When you give, throw it in the ocean, and it will somehow come back to you,” and she saw that he took it to heart. Likely it was a culmination of many things because giving is as significant to who Kadoura is as his exuberant hand gestures and the wide breadth of his arms as he leans in for a hug.

For our interview, we met mid-morning, coffee in hand, at his restaurant, Mediterranean Deli, which occupies a coveted spot on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Though it was long before the usual lunch rush, multiple people still entered the deli—from businessmen to delivery workers to employees. The first thing all of them did as they entered was to head straight to Kadoura, hug him, and tell them they loved him.

After opening in 1992, Mediterranean Deli has steadily grown into a Chapel Hill institution. In the beginning, the cafe only fit 12 tables and a small six-foot deli case. Today, it’s a popular lunch stop for college students, visiting parents, professors, and townies alike, with a 60-foot-long deli case.

Kadoura was born in Israeli-occupied Palestine in 1960. One night in 1967, when he and his siblings were playing marbles in their pajamas, Israeli soldiers knocked on the front door of their home, telling them to leave. In refugee camps, Kadoura received food, blankets, and kindness from humanitarian organizations, which is why he says he invests so much in the Chapel Hill community.

Eventually, his family settled in the town of Qalqilya in Palestine, where he attended a United Nations elementary school. It was here, in his mid-teens, that he discovered his passion for cooking at the schoolyard falafel stand at recess.

Though the green stand was small and simple, its owner managed to make and sell falafel to hundreds of kids at recess. Like Kadoura, many of the school’s students had been displaced. When so much is lost, he realized, food is what binds us together.

“You make love over food; you make peace over food,” Kadoura tells me. “Food is the most important connection in the community.”

Magid, the owner, only had two sandwiches on his menu: a falafel sandwich and a hummus sandwich. It took a lot for the normally shy Kadoura to offer his boss some new ideas. Why not combine the two into a falafel-hummus sandwich, for starters? It was a hit.

It was this moment, many years before the deli was even an inkling in his mind, that started Kandoura’s journey towards Med Deli’s creation. For college, he moved to Minnesota and attended the Minnesota School of Business. The unemployment rate in Minneapolis was high, and with only $35 dollars in his pocket, Kadoura needed money.

He walked in the snow every day, he says, searching for work. Eventually, his persistence won him a dishwashing job at Jolly Troll Smorgasbord, an all-you-can-eat Swedish restaurant.

Though it was at the falafel stand at his school that Kadoura was introduced to ingenuity in the food industry, it was here that he learned about the business and decided he wanted to enter it. Soon after, he moved to North Carolina.

He opened Mediterranean Deli, three doors down from its current location, with the help of his wife, his mother, and his sister. Guests would sit at one of the 12 tables, and though the profits were small, Kadoura knew it was worth it.

“You can’t do it just for the money,” he says. “It’s too stressful and too hard to make it.”

Kadoura remembers coming into work at 3 a.m. and watching UNC students walk home from bars as he prepared food for the lunch rush, sweat dripping down his forehead. After dawn, he’d head to UNC’s campus to hang flyers to post the specials for the day.

“Sometimes he would be frying falafel out back because he didn’t have room inside the restaurant,” his friend Robert Smith tells me.

After two years, Kadoura had grown his business enough to move to the larger Franklin Street location. He expanded five more times before he purchased the entire building in 2012.

“The most important thing about any restaurant is consistency,” Kadoura says. His case is filled with mostly the same food every day. He knows if someone comes in and loves what they eat, they’ll want the same thing the next time.

At Med Deli, there is that consistency. From the creamy chicken salad with the crunch of walnuts to the tangy kale salad to the fresh and sweet peach salad, to the traditional falafel pita with bright vegetables and crunchy falafel (and a side of tzatziki that patrons are often seen grabbing to go for their home-cooked meals), the food is what patrons come and stay for.

The real consistency, though, comes from Kadoura’s enduring relationship with his staff.

“The average employee here has been here for over 10 years,” he says. “They know my kids. I know their kids . . . We’re not just like family. We are family.”

On a visit to Med Deli, Kadoura takes me to the kitchen to introduce me to each member of the staff, sharing their names and how many years they’ve worked for the restaurant. Seven years here; 16 years there; 12 years for another. One employee, in fact, is opening his own Guatemalan/Mexican restaurant down the street. Kadoura is cosigning the lease.

“There are so many times where we think of new recipes because employees come with an idea,” Kadoura says. “If you have a better idea of how to make a better hummus, let’s make it and try and test it and see what people say.”

Beyond investing in his employees, Kadoura is invested in the community.

“When I came here, my goal was to ask, ‘How are we going to really pay back what people did for me when I was a kid?’ And you shouldn’t do it to make your business better; you do it because you want to,” Kadoura says. “A community relationship in a business is fundamental.”

Awards and fundraiser certificates crowd the walls of the restaurant by the kitchen. From natural disasters to efforts to help Syrian refugees, Kadoura has used Med Deli as a space to raise money for causes he is passionate about.

“A lot of restaurants have a little benefit, you know, for charity and stuff, but he’s been a real leader in that,” says Smith. “When most restaurants do these benefits, it’s more typical to give the profits to charity. But when Jamil has a benefit, he gives 100 percent of the money to charity. He’s buying the food and paying the employees out of his pocket.”

In March 2020, Kadoura’s success ground to a halt. After learning from the county health department that he was going to have to close his restaurant for an indefinite amount of time, he set up a conference with all his employees in the back room of the restaurant. He wasn’t worried about himself; he knew he would make it through. But what about his staff, many of whom had depended on him for years?

When he entered the conference room, though, the first thing he was struck by was the sheer volume of people; he so rarely spoke with all his employees in one place or saw them at the same time. But here were all 70 of them in one space.

He explained to them that anyone who wanted to leave, could, and he would understand. Then one employee stood up and told Kadoura that employees had held a meeting behind his back. They had already decided that they would not be paid until things got better and they would all stay on.

“I started crying,” Kadoura says. “I broke down completely.”

While at the restaurant, I was struck by how many visitors told Kadoura they loved him—and how often he said it back.

“I don’t think I say I love you casually to any of my other guy friends except for him,” says Newt Heilman, a friend of 15 years.

Smith remembers making an offhand comment to Kadoura about his love of the deli’s olives. One day, he left his home to find two 10-foot-wide, restaurant-grade containers of olives outside his front porch: Kadoura had ordered two extra containers just for Smith.

“I consider Jamil one of my closest friends,” Heilman adds, “But I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way.”

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