At the intersection of Seven Corners lies a restaurant where an intersection of a different sort has been occurring this summer between two passionate customer bases.
Khalid Mekki moved his restaurant, Bawadi Mediterranean Grill and Sweets Cafe, from its Bailey’s Crossroads location to Seven Corners on July 21. He took over the building which Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant formerly occupied since 2003 until co-owners Cindy and Patrick Leh sold off both their Falls Church and Vienna locations this past spring.
What Mekki didn’t realize when he took over the new menu was how passionate the existing customer base was. The Chinese-influenced menu was one of the few dependable vegan eateries in the area and was often hailed as one of the best in the region.
“My intention was to completely close the Sunflower menu down,” said Mekki. “But when I met the customers, they were very passionate so we gave them a month [to test the Sunflower menu].”
The Lehs closed the restaurant without alerting patrons, so when Mekki used the Sunflower Facebook page to let the customers know of the changes in management, he faced a lot of pushback.
“My family and I have been loyal patrons of this restaurant since it opened its doors. We have hosted multiple events here, and have also utilized Sunflower for the unique vegan options for catering external events as well,” wrote Sara Stewart in response to one of the Facebook announcements. She added “I too urge you to seriously reconsider retiring the Sunflower menu. In a changing world, where more and more people are adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet, eliminating a unique restaurant that many have loved for so long, only to replace it with a similar set of items that can be found nearby is not a good business practice.”
A PhD graduate who quit his engineering job to follow his passion of cooking, Mekki’s survival in the restaurant industry and eventual entrance into Seven Corners hasn’t been easy. According to the Annandale Blog, Mekki sold his home and drained his savings to keep his business going when a partner backed out. Additionally, his restaurant was immersed in an ugly legal battle this past spring when the landlord, Alta Enterprises 1 LLC, decided not to renew Bawadi’s lease with no reason given and less than two months notice.
Although the restaurant had only been open four years, the community support was strong enough to garner 700 signatures on a petition to demand Alta Enterprises reconsider their decision.
Until he saw a sign saying that the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant was going out of business and that the property was for sale, Mekki thought it was a near impossibility to open up so soon after vacating his old property.
Before he closed down the restaurant, Mekki is quoted in an article for Annandale Blog estimating it would take a year to get the necessary permits.
In the month that he’s been open, Mekki has enjoyed the patronage of many of his old diners who have slowly rediscovered the new location.
“It looks great,” said Bawadi customer Kip Germain on the new location. “It’s always been good people and good food. I’m happy to see him open here.”
Still, placating the pre-existing vegan customer base hasn’t been easy. In a Facebook post on Aug. 18, Mekki announced that he would give customers of Sunflower a 15 percent discount through December with a receipt of purchase. The post also listed the many vegetarian options.
Many responded that food cooked in a kitchen alongside meat wouldn’t be acceptable as vegetarian fare. Mary Tuomey (who goes by Mary Ilana on Facebook) wrote “What would possess anyone who’s a vegan or vegetarian to eat at a restaurant that now has a commingled kitchen with meat products?!”Another, Juliana Christine, wrote, “Also, you cannot call yourself a vegetarian restaurant. I won’t be going there but I won’t wish anyone failure, just disappointing to see the menu and spirit of the place gone.”
In contrast, Facebook user Mila Djordjevic wrote, “I went to your restaurant last night with my dad to find more vegan options. The hummus, falafel, salad, grape leaves and baba ganoush was absolutely delicious. I hope you don’t think all vegans are angry and cruel people as we can see in the comments.”
Although Mekki believes that Cindy and Patrick Leh likely retired from the business, he also believes that they weren’t making money from the place.
“The vegan community was not happy to lose this place as a vegetarian-only restaurant, but the business was not good enough, that’s why the owner sold it,” he said.
“It’s not profitable to serve vegan/vegetarian menus with a built in client base of over 20 years? That’s absurd,” said Mary Tuomey in a later interview in response to Mekki’s claim.
Tuomey didn’t personally know the owners but believes the restaurant was one of a kind in that it became a haven for people wanting to eat compassionately.
Vegan blogger Angela Proudfoot of the website, The Voracious Vegan, reviewed Sunflower Vegetarian.
In response to its closing, she wrote, “Any time you lose a long-time vegan restaurant in a neighborhood and replace it with a restaurant that serves meat after what seems some miscommunication about the new ownership, there’s going to be backlash. The regular patrons are disappointed and seem to have been misled.”
When Mekki almost lost his restaurant this past April, he noted that 10 jobs would be lost if he was evicted.
When he came to Sunflower, he allowed the three chefs and manager to stay on and work for him.
Two of the chefs have taken his job offer. Additionally, Mekki argues that he has gone to great lengths to be ethical with his food. All of his meats are organic and halal.
“Halal means the animal is slaughtered in a humane way,” said Mekki. “It’s absolutely done humanely.”
In the interim, Mekki is confidently moving forward with his new menu that was fully introduced on Sept. 1.
Bawadi Mediterranean Grill and Sweets Cafe is located at 6301 Leesburg Pike in Falls Church.