For brothers Danny and Johnny Dubbaneh, the opening of their manoushe bakery and restaurant Z&Z is both a new beginning and a full-circle moment.
The Washington-area pair have been selling manoushe, za'atar, sumac and other spices at local farmers' markets and online since 2016, but underneath their newly opened brick-and-mortar store's fresh paint and new signage is a long family history.
The brothers repurchased the very same location that their grandfather, “Grandpa Fayez”, owned and operated as a deli and fried chicken restaurant after their family moved to the US from Jordan decades ago.
“It's really kind of where our family story started,” Danny told The National during a recent visit to the new location in Rockville, Maryland, about 50 kilometres north of the capital.
“So, to come back to this place where my mum grew up in, my uncles grew up in, one of my uncles would also end up owning and running the place with my grandfather for 25 years, was so special.”
Danny describes his late grandfather as the family’s “anchor” and the original restaurant a product of years of hard work and “odd jobs".
The Dubbaneh brothers surprised their family with the news in a video uploaded to social media, capturing the emotional moment of discovering their grandfather’s handwriting in Arabic in the restaurant's small office while their Uncle Dave reminisced about his days working behind the counter.
“It was very emotional and surreal just to be thinking like, 20-30 years ago, my grandpa was hustling and making a living here and now his grandkids are doing the same,” Johnny said.
Over their years of operating a stand at local farmers' markets, Z&Z has become more than an homage to the Dubbaneh family's heritage and has become a symbol of community for local Arab Americans.
“People would come from like blocks away and say, ‘I smell za'atar’ and they just followed the smell,” Danny said.
“Our proudest accomplishment is that when people come to our tent, it’s not just a transaction. They’re there to spend time, to hang out, they meet other friends … I remember there was this one Lebanese woman that literally broke down in tears because she missed home so much and hadn’t seen fresh manoushe being made outside since she left.”
The brothers say Z&Z's growing popularity is also a product of an increasingly open-minded food culture in the US.
Growing up, the brothers would be teased at school for packing za'atar-manoushe for lunch and they even asked their mother to stop packing it for them.
“It’s really funny to see the shift not only with us, that we’re specialising in it, but also maybe the same people who were maybe making fun of it 20 years ago are like, ‘I love za'atar-manoushe.' It’s incredible to see the turnaround.”
Their za'atar has enjoyed accolades from the likes of Conde Naste’s Bon Appetit, with one of its star YouTubers Brad Leone frequently plugging his love of the spice mixture.
The Dubbanehs take their sourcing seriously and aim to bring the most authentic regional flavours to their American customers.
Their famous za'atar comes from Palestine, their sumac hails from Turkey and their latest spice, Aleppo pepper, has made the “logistically stressful” journey from a contact in Syria to their shelves in the Washington-area suburbs.
In addition to their own products, the brothers have stocked their new restaurant-bakery with products from across the region, including sun-dried fig jam from Lebanon and Dubai-based Mirzam chocolates.
“As second-generation immigrant kids, when you’re younger, you try to fit in and when you’re older, you try to find ways to get back to your roots,” Danny said.
For the large family, co-ordinating the surprise reveal of the restaurant was a triumph on its own, the brothers recalled with a smile.
“Our uncle who was here for 25 years was just adamant he wasn’t going to come that day, so we had to play it up,” Danny said.
“I think they were under the impression that someone was either pregnant or getting married.”
Even through the family’s excitement over the new location, the brothers joke that their parents had expectations typical of first- and second-generation Americans for their children.
“My parents immigrated here in the '80s and my dad owned a restaurant … That’s where our love of hospitality was born and that’s also where our parents' love for telling us to go to college, get a good job and never ever open a restaurant was born,” Danny said.
But the Dubbaneh brothers say Z&Z's expanding clientele and success represents a new era for the “American dream".
“Our grandpa and uncle both came from Jordan and they came to America and they sold American food, cheesesteak and fried chicken, the works. And then second generation Arab-Americans, or any form for that matter, a lot of people are starting to take more ownership and sharing their culture and not shying away from it,” Johnny said.
“Why would you ever shy away from being your true self or sharing your culture?”